You might think it’s hysterical

So, Bronze Dog had a recent post riffing on the apparent problems woos have with humor. I think a lot of it stems from lacking a sense of irony and self-awareness, since those are key elements of a great deal of humor, but that’s another post in itself. In the comments, Valhar2000 pointed us to a brief and really lame website called Jokes About Atheists. It’s not just that the humor is not really humorous (although some of the images are funny–I particularly liked the “There is probably no cod” bus), but the website uses Comic Sans as its font. Comic Sans? Really? Yeah, maybe if I were twelve copy-pasting Internet jokes onto my Geocities page, Comic Sans might seem like a good idea. For (presumably) adults to go use it really speaks to the lack of awareness we’re talking about here.

Anyway, among the half-dozen or so “jokes” (which, by the way, make some glaring omissions–where’s the one about the Marine who punched the atheist professor in the face? Or the one where the atheist is eaten by a Christian bear? This site is far from comprehensive) is a list in the style of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck” jokes. It’s an interesting look into what some Christians consider humor, and seemed like some easy post fodder while I continue working on the more in-depth posts (I promise I haven’t quit writing!). Without further ado:

You MAY Be a Fundamentalist Atheist if….

Yep, off to an auspicious start.

…you became an atheist when you were 10 years old, based on ideas of God that you learned in Sunday School. Your ideas about God haven’t changed since.

Converting to Christianity in childhood and never questioning or improving upon your beliefs, however, is a-okay!

Incidentally, I think someone who based their atheism on Sunday School God alone would be a pretty bad (and pretty easily reconverted) atheist. Most of the atheists I know–those in the more skeptical, scientific camp–base their disbelief on the lack of evidence for any god, whether Sunday School or Theology Class, and generally have done some research on the matter. Not that it’s necessary–if Sunday School teachers provided evidence instead of cutesy stories, this wouldn’t even need to be on the list.

…you think Christians are narrow-minded for believing in only one religion, but atheists are open-minded for believing in absolutely none.

I don’t know anyone who thinks either of these things as stated here. I think many Christians are often narrow-minded or closed-minded for refusing to consider other points of view, refusing to acknowledge evidence, and refusing to question their beliefs. Consequently, those who do question their beliefs, acknowledge evidence, and consider other points of view are what I’d consider open-minded. I’ve known lots of open-minded Christians; I haven’t known quite as many closed-minded atheists (except perhaps on political and economic views).

…you think the USA government is a theocracy.

I think there are people who are trying to move it that way, does that count? I think it’s a bad idea to mix religion and government, and I’d like to see a stronger separation between the two. I’d especially like to see a public open-minded enough to see the religious beliefs of political candidates as less cause for concern than policies and platforms.

…you refer to C.S. Lewis as “that traitor.”

C.S. Lewis was an atheist?

…you think George Carlin was the greatest comedian of all time.

He’s certainly up there. Who did you have in mind instead?

…you spend hours arguing that a-theism actually means “without a belief in God ” and not just ” belief that there is no god” as if this is a meaningful distinction in real life.

I don’t know that I’ve spent hours arguing this, but it is a meaningful distinction, whether or not theists want to accept it.

…”thinking for yourself” means adopting an atheist viewpoint.

Thinking for oneself doesn’t mean that one comes to a completely unique conclusion.

By the way, what’s an “atheist viewpoint”?

…you believe that nativity scenes should be banned from public view, but that anyone objecting to pornography only has to look the other way.

I’m not sure if this is more a strawman or a false dichotomy; I don’t know anyone who thinks that “nativity scenes should be banned from public view;” it’s certainly not a point of view of most atheists, even if there are some asshats who might advocate it. Most atheists who have any opinion that even resembles what’s stated here (and many others who value church-state separation) want nativity scenes removed from public property, since the secular government is supposed to remain neutral on matters of religion. There are two ways to enforce that neutrality on state grounds: the first is to allow any religious group to put up any display (within whatever secular guidelines the state sets) on the public land for any holiday. So we could have light-up plastic Jesus and the manger on Christmas, a light-up plastic Buddha for Buddha’s Birthday, a light-up plastic Flying Spaghetti Monster for Talk Like a Pirate Day, a light-up plastic Wookiee for Life Day, a light-up plastic Raelian UFO on August 6th, a light-up plastic angel killing light-up plastic Egyptian children for Passover, and a light-up plastic maypole with light-up plastic naked pagans dancing around it on May Day. If we’re going to allow the light-up plastic nativity scene, then this is the only fair option.

On the other hand, rather than allowing the courthouse lawn to become a constant rotating showcase for every religion’s chosen kitsch, the government could maintain neutrality by disallowing any religious displays on public property, which is the same policy used for political campaign signs, another point of government neutrality. For the government to declare the courthouse lawn (and other public properties) religious display-free zones does not stop religious groups and individuals from using church grounds or their own private lawns to erect their electric shrines. There’s no “barring the nativity from public view.” You could put a nativity on every lawn in town, provided that the owners of those properties want nativities on their lawns. Why is it such a big deal, why is it so necessary to put your decorations on the town’s lawn as well?

…you assert that “faith is believing things which you know aren’t true”.

It’s “faith is believing what you know ain’t so,” and it’s a Mark Twain quote. Get it right.

Incidentally, while this is a nice pithy and humorous phrase, I can’t imagine anyone actually using it seriously. A more serious variation would be “faith is belief without evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary,” or “faith is the excuse we give to believe things without good reason.” The latter’s pretty close to something Matt Dillahunty is wont to say, the former is just a basic definition of faith as used in this kind of context.

…you think you descended from apes.

I’ll do you one better: I think I am an ape, and a great one at that.

I wonder how Francis Collins, Ken Miller, and every other theist who accepts basic biology feels about suddenly being a “fundamentalist atheist.”

…you get angry if someone implies you’re going to a place that you don’t think exists.

Yeah, it’s a little upsetting to know that there are large swaths of people who think I deserve to be tortured forever because I disagree with them. I don’t get angry about it, I just feel sad that people can have their basic empathy and compassion so twisted and contorted by irrational beliefs. I’m also frustrated that people can look to this sort of improportionate punishment, where actions are equated to thoughtcrime, and where all violations of arbitrary rules result in infinite penalty, and call it “perfect justice” and “merciful.”

…you think marriage is an obsolete fundy institution — except for homosexuals.

This conflates two (possibly three) different positions, I think, which you can see battled out in any Pharyngula thread on same-sex marriage. On one hand are people who think that marriage is a (primarily) religious institution and that the government shouldn’t be bothering with marriage at all, and advocate the replacement or dissolution of civil marriage. On the other hand are poeple who see marriage as a civil institution (or see civil and religious marriage as separate institutions, which is my position), and on that basis see no justification for allowing straights to marry and denying that right to gays. Religious institutions can do whatever they want with their religious marriages, and the government is not required to recognize or endorse religious marriage rites, just as religious groups are not required to recognize or endorse civil marriage contracts. Both positions are reasonable, stemming from different premises on the purpose and benefits of marriage.

…you become upset when a Christian says that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally.

I suppose this might be a sign of an inexperienced atheist debater, but I can’t imagine most “fundamentalist atheists” getting upset by this sort of thing. Now, when a Christian takes an explicitly literalist position (whatever that means), then interprets passages in a figurative way in order to smooth over obvious contradictions and uncomfortable implications, or when a Christian claims that their obviously subjective figurative interpretation of passages is the “literal” interpretation, that’s frustratingly hypocritical. I find it laughable, though, that Christians can claim “not everything in the Bible should be taken literally,” without providing any justification for which passages should be taken literally, and which ones are figurative.

…you call a view held by less than ten percent of the American public “common sense”.

Why use “the American public” here? Is “the American public” somehow the ultimate arbiter of “common sense”? Let me turn this around: Ray Comfort calls Christianity “common sense,” despite the fact that it’s a view held by less than a third of the Earth’s population. “Common sense” is worthless; it’s context- and culture-specific, and it’s certainly not a method of reliably determining truth.

…you have, at least once, phoned, emailed or written the ACLU.

I guess there are no non-American fundamentalist atheists. And I guess all those religious people who have been defended by the ACLU are fundamentalist atheists.

…you’ve ever called a Christian a “Paulian”.

Guilty as charged. Of course, it was in response to Christians who, when faced with contradictions between Jesus’s words and Paul’s words, chose the latter. I guess when I see “Christian,” I assume it means “follower of Christ” or “Christ-like,” not “follower of some guy who never actually met Christ but is apparently more of an expert on Christ’s views than Christ was.”

…you just can’t see any difference between Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc, and Osama bin Laden.

Sure I can: Osama has a beard.

…your first inclination when purchasing the Darwin fish for your car was the hope of being offensive.

This only barely makes sense. First, so what? If I want to have offensive decorations on my car, that’s my prerogative. I don’t see how it makes one a “fundamentalist” anything, any more than “My pit bull could eat your honor student” makes the driver a “fundamentalist dog owner,” or a knock-off Calvin pissing on a Ford emblem makes the driver a “fundamentalist Chevy driver.” Second, believe it or not, it’s not just atheists who accept evolution, though it does seem to be primarily Christians (of certain stripes) who would be “offended” by a decoration supporting good science. Third, if my “first inclination” was to be offensive, there are much better car decorations I could have picked. There’s the T. rex eating the Jesus fish, there’s the one where the Darwin fish is fucking the Jesus fish, and there are countless pithy bumper stickers. Incidentally, how many Christians’ first inclinations are to offend people when they pick out bumper stickers like “One Nation UNDER GOD” or “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”?

…you use one or more of the following alternate spellings: GOD-“gawd” JESUS-“jeeezus” “jayzus” “jebus” “jeebers” BIBLE-“bibble” “babble” “wholly babble” “buy-bull”.

Yeah, this is pretty immature stuff, and I’m a little embarrassed when I see other atheists do it (though I am partial to “Jebus,” just for the Simpsons reference). It’s about as childish as “evilution,” “Darwinist,” “DemocRAT,” and so forth.

…you insist that science is completely partial to all ideas, is not dogmatic and researches all possibilities.

Science isn’t dogmatic, that much I will insist. You don’t see Nobel prizes going to people who strongly reaffirmed the status quo and found nothing new or surprising or paradigm-shattering. As far as “partial to all ideas” and “research[ing] all possibilities,” it’s certainly possible for science to do those things, but it’s usually not necessary. Most ideas are, frankly, stupid, and most possibilities aren’t worth the time, effort, and grant funding to investigate. I don’t need to investigate whether or not clouds are really the cast-off tails of giant invisible floating rabbits; the idea has no evidence behind it and contradicts things we already know about the universe–particularly rabbit physiology and cloud formation. Science researches the possibilities that have some probability given what we already know is possible (or given areas where we don’t know what the possibilities are). We don’t need to research those possibilities that are rendered highly improbable or nonsensical by what we already know, unless there’s some evidence that those possibilities may be true. Take homeopathy, for instance: there’s no reason science should investigate homeopathy, because it’s internally inconsistent, it lacks provenance, and there is no physically plausible mechanism for its operation. The only reason science does investigate it is because so many people believe it works, and only science can determine whether or not it actually does.

Point being: science can and will be open to all ideas and has the capability to research all possibilities, but your possible idea needs to be accompanied by a compelling reason for scientists to spend time, money, and effort on the research.

…you think that if schools teach the Intelligent Design theory of creation, they should also teach the “stork theory” of where babies come from.

Only if we’re going with the “equal time” argument for teaching Intelligent Design Creationism, in which case we should be giving “equal time” to any alternate ‘theories’ of accepted science, regardless of how invalidated they have been by the evidence, or how little actual evidence they have supporting them. There are plenty of arguments proffered by cdesign proponentsists; in many cases, equal time being one of them, they open the door wide to teaching all manner of debunked, discarded, and discredited alternate ‘theories’ in classes throughout the curriculum. Hell, Michael Behe himself said that a definition of science which included Intelligent Design would also include Astrology. I guess he must be a “fundamentalist atheist” too.

…you have any “bible contradictions” website saved in “favorites”.

The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible is more than just a “bible contradictions website.”

…you insist on capitalizing “atheist”.

Why would anyone do that? I generally make it a point to not capitalize “atheist.” I don’t capitalize “theist” either; they’re not institutions, they’re positions.

…you think that “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” are more believable than the Bible.

I’ve given this one some thought, and yeah, I think I have to agree. “Harry Potter” is set in a world that actually bears some resemblance to the real world, and is generally internally consistent. There aren’t large swaths of “Harry Potter” that contradict other parts of the series, and the characters have human personalities and understandable motivations. There are lots of fantastic, impossible elements, to be sure, but at least they make sense in the context of the story. “Lord of the Rings” is even more internally consistent, and the world is far more fleshed-out; while Middle-Earth doesn’t bear much resemblance to reality, the characters’ relationships do. More than that, the magical aspects are generally fairly understated; there isn’t the same kind of flashy wizardry one finds in “Harry Potter,” but a much more subdued magic that one could almost accept as real.

Contrast this with the Bible, which is not only inconsistent with itself, but is inconsistent with the reality it purports to be describing. The characters, when they are given any development at all, often come across as unhinged or disturbed in how their demeanor, statements, and actions change from one scene to another. Jesus, being the character who receives the lion’s share of development in the story, is the best example of this–sometimes he’s inclusive and insightful and patient, other times he’s cursing fig trees for being out of season and being intentionally obtuse so only the right kind of people understand what he’s saying. God is right behind, seeming like an entirely different character from the first half of the book to the second. It’s as though at the start of “Order of the Phoenix,” people had started talking about how loving and benevolent and forgiving Voldemort was. That kind of abrupt, unbelievable diametrically-opposite shift in characterization won’t fly in decent fiction, in large part because of how unrealistic it is. Unless God had an iron rod shoved through his frontal lobes between Malachi and Matthew, his dramatic demeanor change just isn’t believable.

Naturally this is all apples and oranges; neither “Harry Potter” nor “Lord of the Rings” is seriously claimed by anyone to have actually happened, while there are plenty of Christians who look to their favorite novel as an accurate record of history and science.

…you think if a Christian won’t argue when challenged, they are too frightened or can’t answer; but if they do address your arguments, you think it’s a sign that they are “threatened” by your argument.

I can’t respond to this one: I don’t think I’ve ever had a Christian actually address my arguments.

By the way, “threatened” sounds an awful lot like projection to me–as do about half of the rest of these items.

…when someone says ‘God bless you’ when you sneeze, you take it as an open invitation to express your non-belief.

Once you’re stealing jokes from Dane Cook, it’s a real sign that you should stop trying to be funny.

Incidentally, expressing one’s beliefs (or lack thereof) in inappropriate situations or unwanted circumstances, taking any opportunity to bring up their convictions in conversation? Yes, the atheists clearly have that market cornered.

…you have actually calculated the number of people drowned in The Flood you don’t believe.

Can’t say I’ve done the math on this one. It’s really only an interesting figure if you’re comparing God’s death toll with others, or if you’re trying to demonstrate how absurd it is that so many living things could die and no one but the Jews would notice.

…you feel guilty whenever you use the word faith and have decided to remove it from your vocabulary.

Sorry, I look at that word between “word” and “and,” but my eyes just kind of slide off it. Looks like there’s an SEP field at work here.

Seriously, I can’t say that I’ve removed the word faith from my vocabulary, nor do I know anyone who has, nor do I even really know what that would mean. I am a lot more careful with how I use “faith,” and I try not to use it when I actually mean “trust.” It’s the same with “theory,” “believe,” “prove,” and several other words. I care about what words mean, and I try to be as precise as possible when I’m communicating, particularly when it comes to difficult concepts.

…you think religious tolerance does not include Christianity.

I think religious tolerance includes more than just Christianity, despite what so many Christians seem to think.

(This partial list was originally compiled by “GakuesiDon” and “Tekton” and various contributors)

Quoted for credit.

I find it interesting how few of these are actually atheist-specific. I imagine it has a lot to do with the fact that there’s no central atheist doctrine or dogma, which tends to limit how much atheists actually have in common with one another. Consequently, these Christians have to make jabs at science (via evolutionary theory), church-state separation supporters of all stripes, liberal Christians (who I have also seen drawing parallels between Falwell and bin Laden), fundamentalists of other religions (I suspect that a fundamentalist Muslim’s idea of “religious tolerance” might not include Christianity either), people who support the ACLU (which defends believers and nonbelievers alike, contrary to conservative propaganda), and of course a veritable squadron of strawmen. It’s also very specific to American Christianity (and then, to a particular non-literalist-but-still-creationist form of American Christianity), where no thought whatsoever is given to the rest of the world. They posit two camps, one of which is there specific brand of “Christian,” and the other is the “fundamentalist atheists,” who somehow encompass an awful lot of people who claim to be religious.

I’ll admit, I’m tempted to do a “you might be” list of my own, since it would be so easy to turn these around on the believers (and not just Christian ones, either), but I have slightly better taste than that.

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Armageddon It

Quick note: I wrote the vast majority of this post back in February. Lest you think I’ve been slacking off on the posting, I’ve actually been writing quite a few…they just take a while. So don’t be alarmed by outdated references or anything, I assure you this was all topical when I wrote it.


So this guy posted a letter to the Atheist Experience blog. No one there seemed to think it was worth any time or effort, but it seemed like a blast to me, so I’m tackling it here. Note, though, that I’m not taking this too seriously.

Armageddon Thru To You

Like I said, I thought this was actually fairly clever and funny. It reminded me of the bit from “History of the World Part 1”:

Torquemada – do not implore him for compassion. Torquemada – do not beg him for forgiveness. Torquemada – do not ask him for mercy. Let’s face it, you can’t Torquemada anything!

Classic.

If you’ve been wondering why it seems like the world around us is unraveling, it’s because the last days as foretold in the bible are now upon us.

I don’t really think it seems like the world around us is unraveling. Things are moderately crappy, largely due to massive destabilization of the Middle East and eight years of Republican financial policies, but unraveling? I think it was Matt Dillahunty on a recent Atheist Experience or Non-Prophets episode who talked about what a lame, wussy position this is. I mean, look at the generation who grew up in the first half of the 20th Century: they lived through the greatest war the world had ever seen, where chemical warfare was common and the bloodshed was horrendous. They lived through a time of great prosperity and widespread debauchery in the 1920s, where legislated morality led to the rise of organized crime and amoral speakeasies. They lived through times of great disease, where polio and smallpox were widespread even in the richest nations. They lived through a Great Depression, which left the vast majority of people in dire financial straits for years. Then another war broke out, dwarfing the previous one, where six million of God’s chosen people were systematically exterminated, and the atom–the very building block of God’s creation–was rent asunder releasing so much destructive power that it was actually a threat to every living thing in the world. They saw the rise of two global superpowers, opposed to one another, each with the power to destroy the world many times over, one thriving on godless oppression and the other on freedom and (supposedly) Christian values. The generation born in 1900 saw all this unfold in their lifetimes, and you can claim, without any sense of irony, that now the world is unraveling? What temporal hubris, what cultural myopia you must have. You think this is bad, talk to a centenarian. Otherwise, this argument looks precisely as arrogant, self-centered, and blatantly stupid as it is.

Just as it was 2000 years ago, many were unable to discern the signs of Jesus Christ’s first coming (Mat 16:3),

Well, it’s his fault; he should have said something, or at least tapped them on the shoulder.

as will many concerning his second coming, which will occur very soon. Yes many have proclaimed a similar sentiment many times in the past, but their errors have no bearing on today other than to lull you into spiritual apathy, and that too was prophesied to occur in the last days.


Translation: “Sure, everyone who ever said this in the past was wrong, but that doesn’t suggest that we’re wrong this time too. This time, there really is a wolf it’s the real last days.”

If you’re not a believer in Jesus Christ because you’re an atheist,

This falls just on the outskirts of “not even wrong.” I mean, I suppose since I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in Jesus Christ as a God figure; belief in him as a historical figure is a separate question and is not necessarily contrary to the definition of atheism. But I think you’ll find that this is backwards; most of the ex-Christian atheists, anyway, have it the other way around: they’re atheists in part because they don’t believe in Jesus Christ. They tested their beliefs and held fast to that which was good, and Jesus didn’t make the cut.

Naturally, being an atheist is a sufficient but not necessary cause for disbelief in Jesus; non-Christian religions share that particular disbelief, and even some Christian sects have beliefs regarding Jesus that could qualify as one or another sort of disbelief (denying his divinity, denying the Trinity, denying that he existed in the real world, and so forth).

consider that the underlying impetus for your disbelief is most likely borne of pride and here’s why:

Pride? I suppose, after a fashion. I’m proud of my ability to use reason to examine the world around me, and it would be a shame to deny those faculties in favor of a comforting delusion.

When we die, if you as an atheist were right, then there is no upside or downside for anyone regarding the afterlife. We will all simply cease to exist
However if we Christians were right about our belief in the afterlife, then we will be given eternal life and you as an atheist will receive eternal damnation

Oh my goodness, you’re right! I’ve never thought of that before! Why, now that you put it that way, in this way that I’ve never heard before in my life, this argument that certainly isn’t old and common enough to have a name, I’m totally convinced. In fact, I’m going to drop down right now and choose to believe in God because otherwise I might face some terrible punishment. Why, that argument is so valid as to be airtight, it doesn’t employ any fallacious false dichotomies, arguments from adverse consequences, or really insultingly stupid theology. Praise Jesus!

Given the choices, the position held by an atheist is a fools bet any way you look at it because the atheist has everything to lose and nothing to gain. It is tantamount to accepting a “heads I win, tails you lose” coin toss proposition from someone.

Yes, I have nothing to gain by not going to church. Except, you know, a life free of unnecessary guilt and anxiety; an additional ten percent of my gross income; sleep time on Sunday mornings; the freedom to associate with whomever I choose; the freedom to make up my own mind on issues in politics, society, and science; meat on Fridays between Mardi Gras and Easter; a worldview that encourages me to focus on matters that affect real people in the real world rather than supernatural matters that affect no one; the knowledge that I should make the most out of every second I have in this life, since once it’s over there’s nothing else; and a mindset free of backward superstitions. Other than that, I’ve got nothing to gain.

And that someone by the way is Satan (see Ephesians 6:12).

Thank goodness he doesn’t exist either.

The only way to explain the attitude held by an atheist is pride, pure and simple.


I have the sneaking suspicion that you haven’t actually considered the other explanations. There are purer and simpler ones, I assure you.

And, of course, there’s no pride involved in presuming to lecture a whole community on their internal motivations for their beliefs, none whatsoever.

The intellectually dishonest and/or tortured reasoning used by atheists to try and disprove the existence of God is nothing more than attempts to posture themselves as superior (a symptom of pride).

As opposed the the intellectually dishonest and tortured reasoning used by Christians to try to prove the existence of God, which is far more than an attempt to posture themselves as superior. Look, if you’re going to do this much projecting, the least you could do is sell popcorn.

And as anyone who has read their bible knows, this is precisely the character flaw that befell Lucifer, God’s formerly most high angel. (Isaiah 14:12-15).

Yeah, Lucifer had the gall to suggest that maybe he could do better than God, who spent the entirety of the Old Testament screwing up and then hitting the global reset button to make up for his mistakes. What a terrible crime. “Hey, I could do that without global genocide. Whoops, guess I’m in Hell now.”

Is it any wonder then why the bible is so replete with references to pride as the cause of mankind’s downfall?

Actually, I’d say curiosity is more often mankind’s downfall in the Bible (Eden, Babel, Lot’s wife etc.), which says an awful lot about the Fundie mindset. Then again, an even more frequent cause of mankind’s downfall is God.

Pride permeates our lives and burdens us in ways that most of us seldom recognize. Ironically, pride is the one thing that can blind someone to things even the unsighted can see.

No, faith can do that too, and more efficiently.

And sadly pride will blind many with an otherwise good heart, to accepting the offer of eternal salvation that Christ bought and paid for with his life.

And pride can likewise blind many to the fallacies on which they base their belief systems, chief among them a sense of personal infallibility regarding interpretations of various holy books and prophetic signs.

In any event, if you’re an atheist, I wish you only the best for every day of the rest of your life because for you, this life is as close to heaven as you’ll ever get,

This is about as close to reasonable as the letter gets. You’re right, this world is the best we can hope for, which means we should do everything we can to make it live up to our hopes. But this is true for everyone, regardless of their beliefs. This world is as close to Heaven as any of us knows we’ll be getting. It is pride of the highest sort to presume that you know who is worthy of Heaven and who is worthy of Hell; your Bible says that only your God can make such judgments. Would you really presume that God agrees with you on the matter of who to save and who to damn? Would you really presume that your understanding of the mind of God is perfect and complete? If so, then I submit that your accusation of pride among atheists is made from a glass house under rocky assault. If not, then shut the hell up, because you’re talking out of your pious ass.

but for believers in Christ, this life is as close to hell as we’ll ever get.

What a deplorable sentiment. Okay, so this world is as close to Hell as you can get. Which makes more sense: waiting it out pouting in the damn corner, or working to make it a better place? The conclusion for atheists and Christians ought to be the same: regardless of what you think lies after, you should be making the most of your time before.

If you’re not a believer and follower of Jesus Christ because you are of another faith, please take the time to very carefully compare your faith to Christianity and ask yourself, why is the bible the only religious book with both hundreds of proven prophecies already fulfilled as well as those being fulfilled today?

If you’re a believer and follower of Jesus Christ, please take the time to very carefully compare your claims to other religions and ask yourself if they aren’t also claiming to have fulfilled and fulfilling prophecy. Then, you might examine whether or not their claims are valid. Then you might examine whether or not your prophetic claims are just as fallacious, vague, self-fulfilling, or interpreted after the fact as theirs are.

No other religion can claim anything remotely close to this fact.

Neither can yours. They all rely on the same silliness as Nostradamus and Astrology. Unless you care to point out specific examples.

Many Christians who are serious students of bible prophecy are already aware of the role and significance of bible prophecy in foretelling end time events.

Yes, and many Trekkies who are serious students of Star Trek continuity are already aware of the role and significance of Star Trek technology in fortelling future technological advancements. What’s your point?

God gave us prophecy as evidence of his divine holiness to know the begining from the end (Isa 46:10). God also believed prophecy to be so important that to those willing to read the most prophetic book in the bible, the Book of Revelation, he promised a special blessing (see Rev 1:3), and this is the only book in the bible that God gives its reader a special blessing for reading. Something to think about.

It’s also the only book in the Bible that reads like “I Am the Walrus.” Something else to think about. Goo goo g’joob.

Also, God didn’t sit down and write the book himself, you know. It’s John (allegedly) who says that the people reading the book will be blessed.

Don’t risk losing Christ’s offer of eternal life by not accepting him as your savior and by thinking that the bible is nothing more than a compilation of unrelated and scattered stories about people who lived 2,000 plus years ago.

But I’ve no reason not to think that the Bible is nothing more than a compilation of loosely related and scattered stories about people who may or may not have lived 2,000-plus years ago.

If you take the time to study (not just read) the bible, you will literally be shocked to learn things you would have never imagined would be revealed in it.

Literally shocked? Like, with electricity? Aside from your misuse of the word “literally,” I agree. I’m often shocked by the things I learn from the Bible, from scientific absurdities to divine atrocities to descriptions of guys with big floppy donkey dicks that ejaculate like firehoses.

Did you know that like parables, God also uses particular months and days in the Jewish calendar, Jewish Feasts and customs, solar and lunar phases, celestial alignments, gematria (Hebrew numerology) early bible events and more as patterns and models to foretell future events?

Wow, a book written by Jews and Jewish offshoot sects employs months and days in the Jewish calendar, Jewish feasts and customs, and Jewish number magic innumeracy numberwang numerology? I never would have imagined! How surprising! And solar and lunar phases, you say? Why, that makes it totally unique among religions, because no other societies thought that solar and lunar phases were significant!

Consider the following interesting facts about the bible that testify to its God-inspired authorship:

“The dedication page says ‘To Me, who makes all things possible'”?

Did you know that in Gen 12:2, God said he would bless Israel?. How else can you explain the grossly disproportionate level of success achieved by Jewish people as a tiny minority in the world, especially after all they have gone through?

Yes, the grossly disproportionate level of success achieved by this tiny minority, totally ignoring also the disproportionate level of suffering they’ve faced. And totally ignoring how social customs and rules in various time periods have contributed to that success–you know, like how after the terrors of the Holocaust, the Allied nations said “these people need a haven,” carved one out, and then gave them alliance and protection in perpetuity thereafter. Or how religious and legal rules in the Renaissance prohibited Christians from lending money to one another or working as bankers, leaving the job (and thus, the stigma of being greedy) to the Jews. None of those real-world things would account for the “grossly disproportionate level of success” achieved by Jewish people as a tiny minority.

And how can you explain the success achieved by the tiny nation of Israel, surrounded by enemies outnumbering them 100 to 1 and yet still they remain victorious in all their wars?

Outnumbered is not outmatched. The Jews have powerful allies and better weapons than their neighbors. If God were protecting them, I think we’d hear of a lot fewer bombed discotheques.

Did you know that as evidence to indicate that Israel is the epicenter of the world from God’s point of view is the fact that languages to the west of Israel are written and read from left to right as if pointing to Israel, and languages from countries to the east of Israel are written and read from right to left, again as though pointing to Israel. Just a coincidence, you say? I think not.

I think not too. In fact, I think that it’s simply false. First, it ignores the origins of these written languages (i.e., that most European and central/western Asian languages developed out of Proto-Indo-European…in Russia). Second, the Earth is spherical; shouldn’t some of these languages be read top to bottom, or bottom to top, by this logic? Shouldn’t Hebrew be a spiral instead of a right-to-left format? Last I checked, Russia was east of Israel, and yet Russian is read left-to-right. I guess it’s because they’re godless commies, right?

Did you know that the six days of creation and seventh day of rest in Genesis is a model for the six thousand years of this age (ending very soon), that is to be followed by a 1,000 year millennial reign by Christ (see 2 Peter 3:8)? Adam was born sometime prior to 4000 B.C., therefore our 6000 years are almost up.

“Did you know that the Bible supports a chronology that we took from a particular interpretation of the Bible?” Great, now try explaining it in light of the real facts–a 13.7 billion-year-old universe, a 4 billion-year-old planet, a two million-year-old species, and so forth. My guess would be, based on your logic here, that we’ve got a good four million years left in “this age” before a thousand years (or a thousand million years?) of reigning Sons of Men (Hallelujah).

Did you kow that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is hidden in the meaning of the Hebrew names listed in the genealogy of the book of Genesis (Research it online)?

What the hell does this even mean? Is this Bible code “word search” insanity? I guess “cherry picking” and “law of large numbers” really mean nothing to you, then.

To deny this was God-inspired, one has to instead believe that a group of Jewish rabbis conspired to hide the Christian Gospel right inside a genealogy of their venerated Torah, which is not a very plausible explanation.

Nope, it isn’t. Which is why we have a more plausible explanation: you’re seeing patterns where none exist, and cherry-picking evidence to fit your claims. And ignoring the fact that the people who wrote the Gospels knew the Old Testament; if there were a correllation, it would say nothing more than that the Gospel writers wrote Jesus’s message according to the Hebrew genealogy. But I think that’s a less likely explanation than the verbal pareidolia one.

Did you know that solar eclipses, which the bible describes as the sun being black as sackcloth, and lunar eclipses, which the bible refers to as blood red moons, have prophetic meaning? Research it online.

I know people have long interpreted eclipses and comets and other cosmic events to have prophetic meaning. I also know people have long believed that thunder came from angels bowling and that volcanoes erupted in anger at receiving too few virgins. Every time I think we’ve made some serious progress as a species, someone comes up to remind me that we’re only a few short centuries removed from thinking that drilling holes in skulls to release the demons was the cutting edge of medicine and that the Earth might topple over if one of the elephants sneezed. Really? Eclipses are prophetic? So, what about people in the regions where the eclipse doesn’t happen (you know, like over half the planet during every solar eclipse), or is only partial? Does the prophecy not apply to them?

I do believe that annular eclipses have prophetic meaning, specifically that seven days after you see it, you’re going to die.

God showed Adam (and us) his plan for man’s redemption through the use of celestial alignments. (research Mazzaroth online)

How does this prove anything about the Bible’s authority or accuracy?

Did you know that much of the symbolism in the book of revelation refers to planetary alignments that will occur when certain events occur as prophesied?

Did you know that much of the symbolism in the Book of Revelation refers to political events happening at the time it was written?

These planetary alignments also explained the birth of Christ, just search out The Bethlehem Star movie on the Internet.

*Headdesk*

Did you know that the references in Eze 39:4-17 and Rev 19:17-21 in the battle of Gog/Magog and Armageddon respectively, in which birds of prey will eat the flesh of the dead in battle from two enormous wars is based on fact? The largest bird migration in the world consisting of bilions of birds (34 species of raptors and various carrion birds) from several continents converge and fly over Israel every spring and fall. Coincidence? I think not.

I’m not going to check out the facts on the bird migration for this; whether or not it’s true is immaterial. Assuming it does happen, what we have are people who are used to seeing lots of carrion-eating birds writing about lots of carrion-eating birds eating carrion. That’s neither amazing nor prophetic, it’s common fucking sense. If I were writing a prophecy about a large number of dead people, and I wanted to include some graphic details, what am I going to write? Bodies rotting, animals consuming them, maybe survivors working to bury or burn the corpses…you know, the things that happen when lots of people die. It’s not prophetic, it’s realistic.

Did you know that Hebrew numerology, also known as Gematria, and the numbers with biblical and prophetic significance are hidden in the Star of David? Google the video called “Seal of Jesus Christ”

Did you know that numerology is bullshit, and that you can cherry-pick numbers from anything to fit any predetermined conclusion?

Did you know that the seven Churches mentioned at the beginning of the Book of Revelation describe the seven stages the Church will go through?

That’s some literalism there. I can’t imagine it would refer to seven churches or anything. Especially since it says “to the seven churches which are in Asia.” Are those seven stages that the church will go through in Asia? So, what’s the significance of the seven Asian locations listed after the colon after “the seven churches which are in Asia,” namely Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodiciea? I suppose those are all metaphors for the different ages that the church will go through, right?

Did you know that you can interpret any text to mean just about anything? It’s true. Search “literary analysis” online.

Holy shit! I just realized that the Seven Dwarfs are metaphors for the seven ages that the church will go through! I’m pretty sure the current one is Dopey.

There are literally hundreds of hidden messages in the bible like these that testify to the fact that the bible was God inspired, and statistically speaking, are all exponentially beyond the likelihood of any coincidence.

The same can be said for every book of sufficient length. I don’t think you understand the words “statistically,” “exponentially,” “likelihood,” or “coincidence.”

You can find them yourselves if you only take the time to look into it. Remember Proverbs 25:2 “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings”.

What does Proverbs say about finding patterns in a matter where none actually exist, or reading into a matter the conclusion you decided ahead of time?

And finally, if you are Catholic, or one who subscribes to the emergent Church or seeker-friendly Church movement, please compare the doctrine taught, advocated or accepted by your Church, with the actual bible, notwithstanding some new-age version of the bible.

“Please compare that doctrine with my Bible, particularly my metaphorical, prophecy-centric, exclusivist interpretation of the Bible.”

And remember that although the bible is often referred to as the living bible, the word “living” was never intended to imply in any way that the bible “evolves” over time to meet, or be consistent with, the standards of man. It’s just the opposite.

Here Lies Tom’s (newest) Irony Meter

b. January 2009 d. February 2009

Requiescat In Pace

“Poor bastard never saw it coming.”

As long as you’re exhorting people to do their own research, why not do a brief search on “Council of Nicaea.” That’s a pretty decent place to start disproving your baldly false claim here.

Well, am I getting through to you?

Not in the way you’d hoped. Also, the pun was better when you didn’t make it explicit.

If not, the answer might be explained in the response given by Jesus Christ in his Olivet discourse when he was asked by his disciples why he spoke the way he did (in parables, etc.) in the book of Matthew 13:10-16. What Jesus said could have easily been paraphrased more clearly as “so that the damned won’t get it”. Why did Christ respond the way he did when asked why he spoke this way? Is there something about pride (the bible says there is) that closes one’s heart to seeing or hearing the messages supernaturally hidden in bible parables, models, typologies, and similes, etc.? That should give you something to think about, but don’t take too long. Time is now very short.

Yes, it gives me something to think about. And what it makes me think is that Jesus was an elitist bastard, and not nearly the kind of orator that he’s made out to be. “I’m going to be intentionally obtuse so only the people who are bright enough to sort through my bullshit and lucky enough to pull out the right message are able to escape arbitrary eternal damnation. To everyone else: sucks to be you!” Some message of unconditional, universal love there. Looks to me like Heaven is a gated community, and the good ol’ boys in charge of the divine housing association don’t want the “wrong sort of people” to get in.

And yet, the people who are most certain that they’re getting in, the ones who are so sure that they’re smart enough to crack the code of Jesus’s opaque message, are the folks like you, Armageddon, who accuse atheists of being prideful and elitist. But despite their pretenses, they also seem unable to notice the blatant logical fallacies, errors of fact, scientific illiteracy, and profound innumeracy on which their interpretation is based. I guess Jesus’s “right sort of people” doesn’t include particularly rational ones.

If it sometimes seems like there are powers at work behind the powers we know, remember what it says in Ephesians 6:12 “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” If you study the bible, it will become clearer.

On one hand, I want to bring out 1 Peter 2:13-17 to counter your claim about authorities and rulers. On the other hand, I realize that you’re talking about a supernatural, metaphysical evil, and that the world is somehow tainted by original sin. I suppose if you read the Bible–with a particular sort of bent–that sort of thing might become clearer. It also might not–there are plenty of Bible-believing Christians (probably a large majority, actually) who not only deny your exclusivist gnostic interpretation of the Bible, who not only deny your reading of the book as though it’s nothing more than a newspaper horoscope, who not only deny your mix-and-match ransom letter approach to the text, but who call it out as anti-Christian heresy. I don’t really have a horse in that race, but I can see that they’ve got a point, and even a fool can see how you have to twist, torture, and completely decontextualize most of the book in order to reach the conclusions of Scofield his progeny of Premillennial Dispensationalists. It’s not difficult to see the neo-Gnostic attitude of “I know the real truth, which you can’t know unless I give you the secret True ChristianTM Decoder Ring.” Your “Bible that doesn’t evolve over time to be consistent with the standards of man” explicitly omitted several books that supported that sort of reading, as part of the church declaring that particular attitude a heresy.

But no, I’m sure you’re right. The people who put together the Bible, which you seem to believe is unchanging and perfect, were utterly wrong in describing your sort of interpretation of its teachings as a heresy. I guess God was only inspiring them some of the time.

And by the way, if you are a scoffer, this too was prophesied to occur in the last days. See 2 Peter 3:3.

I love this; I have to remember it when I go to write my books. I’ll just include this in the epigraph: “This is the greatest book ever. This book is so great that people will be in denial about how great it is. After it’s printed, they’ll say that it’s not the greatest book ever, just to mask the fact that they realize it really is the greatest book ever. Just watch, when people say this book isn’t the greatest ever, they’ll just be proving my point that it is.” If I preempt the criticisms of my books and theories and whatnot by acknowledging them and saying they just prove my theories correct, then I insulate myself from any and all criticism ahead of time! It’s a foolproof plan!

Thank you and God Bless you!
Armageddon.thru.to.you (at) gmail.com

You’re welcome, and may the Force be with you!

Church bulletin

So, I went to church last Sunday, and I’m almost glad that I did. It was a very entertaining service, which at least once tipped toward giggle loop territory.

First, my brother and I left for church after everyone else, neither of us really having any desire to go to Sunday School/Bible Study. I’m pretty sure he’s seen me in the closet, so to speak, mostly because I accidentally left my list of Podcasts open on iTunes the other night, and saw him looking at it. Curse you, “The Atheist Experience,” for coming so early in the alphabet! Anyway, after a fallout between him and my mother a few years back, I suspect he’s got about the same mindset. We listened to The Lonely Island on the way to church, and arrived just before the service started.

Things began with the teeny-tiny choir walking up to the stage from the back of the church, singing “Rejoice in the Lord Always” a capella. Now, maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s some impulse from some forgotten passage in my youth when I was involved in a church chorus, but the song felt incomplete. I felt the difficult-to-resist urge to add in claps where they would be rhythmically appropriate, i.e.:

Rejoice in the Lord a-always, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)
Rejoice in the Lord a-always, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)
Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)
Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)

I don’t know, it was like taking the claps out of “Jack and Diane”–without them, there really wasn’t much to the song.

The first Hymn ended up reminding me of this passage in its layers of double-entendre. It wasn’t quite as hilarious, but with all its talk of “raising” and “stones” and “let the cry be heard across the land,” my gutter-mind was rapidly filling. When it got to the last bit, about “prais[ing] him with 10,000 tongues,” I shot a glance at my brother, and we both almost lost it.

Things were uneventful through the brief announcements and the offering and the special music and whatnot. Then the sermon started, and boy do I wish I’d had a tape recorder. It started with standard Easter clichés–it’s a beautiful morning, Jesus is risen, what a wonderful sacrifice, etc. But about two minutes in, it got fun. The pastor explained why Jesus died for everyone’s sins:

As Spock would say, “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one.”

It took me a second to realize that, yes, he actually said that. My brother groaned, and I just kind of sighed and shook my head. In the absurdity of the moment, I didn’t even realize that he messed up the quote (it’s the needs of the many).

Now, this might have been a moderately good segue into a sermon explaining Christian theology in terms of Star Trek. There are better openings for such a sermon, and I don’t think it would have been appropriate for Easter Sunday, and there’s the absurdity of using atheist Gene Roddenberry’s frequently anti-religious series to frame Christian beliefs, but such a sermon would have been interesting. This wasn’t that sermon; Spock would not be mentioned again.

  • After some more talk about how awesome Jesus’s sacrifice was, the pastor* said that he sometimes wondered what it would be like if Christ came today–then clarified that he meant the first coming, or what if Jesus had waited until the modern day to do his thing.

    Now, I’ve often thought about this very question myself, though obviously not from the same perspective. Given the lack of evidence for Jesus’s existence and the likelihood of much of the story of his life being exaggerated, mythologized, and fabricated, I don’t think there’d be a whole lot of difference, if any. But what if Christianity had never taken hold? What if, like all the other contemporary messianic Jewish spinoff cults, it had fizzled out or never even existed in the first place? What would the world be like?

    That’s usually about as far as I get. For one thing, I don’t have the requisite historical knowledge to be able to imagine that scenario with any kind of detail. For another, say what you will about the Christian church (and I do), but they have been fairly efficient at amassing power, prestige, wealth, and influence in the last 1700 years or so. Without Christianity, what religion would Constantine have chosen? Would that have filled the vacuum left in the absence of Christianity? Would some other religion be able to fill the same niches, spreading to and assimilating from other cultures with the same ceaseless alacrity? One of the key innovations of Christianity, which I credit for much of its success even today, was ease of conversion: all you have to do to become a Christian, as so many preachers will tell you, is hit your knees and accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. Other religions require you to be born, married, or conquered into the fold, or ask you to go through lengthy, painful, or difficult conversion rituals. Christianity doesn’t even require you to remove your foreskin! Would the replacement religion of Rome have this same flexibility? Would a religion without that trait spread as easily?

    By the time I begin considering a Middle Ages without a Catholic church to fight the Crusades and fund the Universities, I realize that there’s very little chance that a world without Christianity would bear any resemblance to the world with it, except perhaps in those regions where Christianity never flourished.

    That would have made for an interesting sermon, and a far more interesting history lesson or book (in fact, if such a book exists, I’d like to read it). This was not the direction that the pastor chose to go on Sunday. Instead, he paused after that brief “what if” introduction (just long enough for someone to strum some harp strings and for the screen to go all wavy) and then began to read:

    Peter Pumpkinhead came to town,
    Spreading wisdom and cash around
    Fed the starving and housed the poor,
    Showed the Vatican what gold’s for.
    But he made too many enemies
    Of the people who would keep us on our knees.
    Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead.

    I perked up after the first two words, far more shocked than I was at the Spock reference. Was a pastor, in a church–a Christian church–actually quoting XTC’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”? He was. And he continued to do so.

    Peter Pumpkinhead pulled them all,
    Emptied churches and shopping malls.
    When he spoke, it would raise the roof:
    Peter Pumpkinhead told the truth.
    But he made too many enemies
    Of the people who would keep us on our knees
    Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead

    At this point, under my breath, I said (quite incredulously) “Is he going to sing the whole song?”

    He was. He went through the whole song, more or less. He fouled up the last line of the third verse (saying “Any kind of law with love’s all right” as opposed to “Any kind of love is all all right”), and I realized after the service that he’d abbreviated the chorus (even when, at the end, he repeated “Hooray for Peter Pumpkin” twice, as it sort of does in the song). The actual lyric is “Hooray for Peter Pumpkin / Who’ll pray for Peter Pumpkinhead?”

    I like the song enough that I picked up the album it’s on (“Nonsuch”) at a used CD store a month or two ago. Here’s the video:

    After finishing the song and the citation, the pastor said something like “Is that what it would be like if Jesus came today? Would we miss the point like that?” Pastor, if your sermon is any indication, then we’d miss the point by a wide, wide margin.

    Now, perhaps I’m way off, but I don’t think “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” is a pro-religious song. In fact, I read it as the story of a secular messiah, who “tells the truth” against religion, consumerism and probably government. He “empties churches” with his speeches, which makes enemies of “the people who would keep us on our knees”–i.e., religious leaders. I suppose tyrannical governments would fit in as well, but the line has always seemed to have the connotation of prayer to me. The Christ imagery is certainly intentional, and the video makes that even more explicit, but it reads to me more a criticism of the church message than a validation of it.

    Then again, my interpretation is also informed by one of XTC’s other well-known songs. Given “Dear God,” I kind of have an inkling as to what XTC’s thoughts on religion are. Furthermore, I have a hard time believing that anyone in the United States could be familiar with XTC’s version of “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” (as opposed to the Crash Test Dummies version off the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack) without also being familiar with “Dear God,” which I’d think was the much more popular song. Similarly, I have a hard time believing that anyone would be familiar with either of those songs without knowing “Mayor of Simpleton,” much to my chagrin.

    It’d be like knowing The Beatles for “The Long and Winding Road” and not knowing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Come Together.” Point being, I don’t know how you could pull a positive message about religion out of “Ballad” if you were at all familiar with the band’s other songs, and if you paid any attention to the lyrics, and if you had any sort of moderately orthodox religious views. Either this pastor is very oblivious, very dense, or very keen on irony, and I’m almost certain that the latter isn’t the case.

    So that was pretty entertaining. And while it would have been schizophrenic and borderline disrespectful to hear someone make a sermon out of such a (blatantly, from my perspective) atheistic, anti-religious song, the pastor didn’t follow through. After briefly touching on the meaning of the song (mostly just asking a couple of questions about whether or not it would be like that today) he shook his head and said something to the effect of “let’s get out of that nightmare.” Unfortunately for him, he’d done nothing to characterize his “what if” scenario as nightmarish. In fact, he’d really done nothing to characterize his “what if” scenario–all the characterization was original to the song, and there’s nothing really nightmarish about the story. I could see coming up with a nightmarish scenario where the congregation is made to consider how they would feel as the modern-day Pharisees and Pilates responsible for crucifying the modern-day messiah, but this wasn’t that sermon.

    After this, the pastor went on about various themes related to the day–we’ve all both succeeded and failed in life, we’ve all stepped off the path, and we gather together in part to help each other back onto said path, we all believe in God, we have to practice our faith–you get the idea. He had a tendency to lead down a path with a thematically repetitive series of phrases, culminating in some pithy, obviously telegraphed punchline, after which he would stop and smugly beam as though he’d said the most profound thing ever. The example that really sticks out is the “practice” thing, how we have to practice our faith, and the word “practice” came up so many times in the rambling sermon that it was the closest thing it had to an overarching theme, even though most of the sermon had nothing to do with it. But after one string of phrases about practicing, he said “and practice makes perfect,” and stopped, and grinned this smug grin. Okay, great, not only was it patently obvious that you were going there, but it seems like you’re suggesting that as long as we’re diligent in going to church and following the rules, we can be Jesus.

    I can’t really stress this point enough: in order to be an effective speaker, you really have to have some awareness of what message your audience is getting from your speech. This pastor didn’t have a clue, and it really showed. There were several occasions where I could tell that he expected the audience to be feeling some specific emotion or sensation, but he hadn’t done anything to make them feel that, and so the moment fell entirely flat.

    Anyway, somewhere along the line, he descended into something that I can only describe as the Glurge Gallop. He started telling a story about a pastor who told a story to a congregation–very meta.

    To digress a moment, I suspect that if Jon and I were to come up with a list of rules for bad movies and music to follow, based on our long and storied history of consuming bad media, one of them would be “Don’t make references to better movies/songs.” It pops up an awful lot, actually, where some terrible movie or terrible song will make a throwaway reference to some much better movie or song, either demonstrating that the artist thinks they’re really clever or that they think they’re actually as good as the object of the reference**. If the song or the film is good, then the reference serves whatever purpose is intended–satire, homage, jarring juxtaposition, etc. When the work is bad, the reference only serves as a reminder of how bad the work is. Moreover, it shows that the artist is familiar with better works, which means they don’t even have ignorance as an excuse for the poor quality.

    That’s what this meta-sermon did: by giving a sermon about another pastor giving a better sermon, the pastor really only underscored how bad his sermon was by comparison, and showed that he’d at least been exposed to better sermons, which should have given him some idea as to what makes for a compelling speech.

    This is not to say that the story he told was all that good. A quick Google search turned up many versions (as I’d expected) that have likely been forwarded around in e-mails with tags at the end exhorting believers to forward this message to everyone in their address book, an act for which they will be doubly blessed***. Here’s the closest version I could find with minimal effort. The jist of the first half of the story is that the pastor comes into church and sets an empty birdcage on the pulpit, then proceeds to tell the congregation the story of how he met a small child who had the cage full of birds. He asked what the kid planned to do, and the kid responded that he’d play with them, then when he got tired of them, he’d feed them to his cat. The pastor bought the birdcage from the boy (who named his own price–$2 in the version I heard) and set the birds free.

    On its own, that would have made for a decent start of a sermon, either from the pastor at the church or the one in the story. It’s a parable, and it would make for a decent sermon about how Jesus paid the price to set us free from sin. It would, that is, if not for the last half of the story. The probably-fictional pastor then goes on to tell the exact same story, except with Jesus and Satan in the roles of the pastor and child, and humans in the cage instead of birds. Now, it’s one thing to use a story as a metaphor for what you’re trying to teach, it’s quite another to belabor the point by telling a metaphorical story, then telling the same metaphorical story in a slightly different fashion so that the metaphor smacks you in the ass with its obviousness. The good sermonizer would take the parable of the caged birds and relate the various elements to the story of Christ’s sacrifice; the poor sermonizer writes bad fanfic about Jesus and Satan having a little chat.

    One of the more interesting features about that story was that it included a Jazz interlude of sorts, a place where different people telling the story could be creative and add their own touches to it, much like the chapters of “The Iliad” about the various sorts of boats in the fleet, or the vast majority of The Aristocrats. In this case, it’s the passage where Satan outlines his plans for the caged humans. I can’t recall exactly where the pastor went with this, though I definitely recall “divorce” being in there, and I seem to recall war-related stuff as well. The latter, I’d think, betrays a pretty staggering ignorance of all the places in the Bible where God orders war (and worse). The former just strikes me as odd–I have a hard time seeing divorce as a purely negative thing; certainly happily divorced couples are better than unhappily married ones, right? It seems like the real “devil’s work” there would be causing incompatible couples to fall in love with one another, or pressuring people to marry prematurely or for bad reasons.

    But there I go again, the bleeding-heart liberal godless atheist, wasting time on the reasons why people do “bad” things, rather than just attributing it all to sin and Satan.

    But despite how condescending, repetitive, ham-fisted, and sappy the full story ends up being, I suppose you could craft a decent sermon around it. I don’t know why you’d want to; it seems like the best option for that idea would be to cut out the last half and let the parable stand on its own. Such sermons can work very well; I quite liked the one about gossip in “Doubt,” where the priest told a story about another priest using a parable (though it was a little less meta) to teach a lesson. But again, that parable wasn’t immediately followed by a pedantic retelling where the meanings of all the symbols were made explicit. Regardless, none of these was the sermon that the pastor preached on Sunday.

    No, instead of tying this story into the apparent theme of “practice,” instead of really elaborating on the story, instead of making any connection to “Peter Pumpkinhead,” the pastor whipped out another glurge. This story starts with a dark night in Chicago****, where a homeless boy peddles newspapers on the street. I don’t know if it was the mumbling or just my lack of sleep, but when the pastor started, I thought he said “In ‘Dark Knight,’ in Chicago…” (since that’s where much of the movie was filmed). I thought it would be odd to pull a religious message out of The Dark Knight, but after Spock and XTC, nothing was going to surprise me. Rather than comparing Harvey Dent to Job, though, the pastor went on to relate the linked story, where a boy uses “John 3:16” as a secret password to get food, shelter, and comfort for the night. Go ahead and read the story, it’s sappier by far than the previous one, and this post is long enough without a recap. If you want, you can find it here on the Snopes forums, with some amusing comments.

    Back? Okay, so a small child gets hospitality and charity by citing a chapter and verse. Now, I understand what the point of the story is, but it still seems like the better verse would be Matthew 25:40 (“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”) or Matthew 19:14 (“But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven”) or Deuteronomy 15:11 (“Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy”) or any of a dozen other verses about charity, hospitality, and cute Dickensian ragamuffins, rather than just the summary verse of Christianity.

    I honestly don’t remember if the pastor did any follow-up on that story. I remember him saying something at some point about how we haven’t been able to eliminate war and hatred and blahdey blah in 2000 years, and for shame and so forth, but beyond that, the rest of the service is kind of a blur.

    So Spock, XTC, and the licorice whiplash of non sequitur glurges, all connected only by the fact that the same guy was saying them in the same place in the same block of time. I’m not exactly astounded that such a sermon could get made and presented–I’ve seen the same problems in college writing–but I’m a little astounded that a pastor could be complimented for the sermon afterward (admittedly, I don’t know how many people did that, but at least one did). To my parents’ credit, they found the sermon just as inane as I did, and suggested that a lack of self-awareness was a feature of that pastor’s character (“he thinks he can sing, too,” my dad said, or something along those lines). By any reasonable standards, this was a terrible speech, with no overall theme, no single point, just a bunch of half-formed unrelated ideas. At least it was entertainingly bad, I suppose.

    Look, far be it from me to tell Christians how to write their sermons; I’m not their intended audience (or, then again, maybe I am). All I know is that I’m not interested (or swayed) even the slightest bit in sitting on an uncomfortable pew for an hour having someone read me the e-mail forwards they’ve received in the past week. From my perspective, the vast majority of the justification for religion rests in emotion, and a large portion of apologetics arguments are appeals to pathos. I don’t expect sermons to be logically valid or based on sound evidence–then they’d just be lectures–but I do expect that a sermonizer have some awareness of emotional appeals. If you don’t have that, then there’s not a whole lot left–kind of like that song, sans clapping. There’s content, sure, but it’s repetitive and shallow, and there’s no way to get into it.


    *I’m reasonably certain that this church would use a different word. The concept is essentially the same though.

    **Good examples: Gwen Stefani mentions (and uses the bass line from) “Another One Bites the Dust” in “Hollaback Girl,” Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” is about “Sweet Home Alabama” (and samples “Werewolves of London”), Rihanna’s “SOS” samples “Tainted Love” and name-drops several other ’80s songs, and so forth.

    ***Particularly if they happen to be barely seventeen and barely dressed.

    ****On the Dickensian London side of the city, apparently.

  • The Bible is Not an Objective Moral Standard

    Why yes, this is my go-to image for discussions of morality. Why do you ask?Reading posts by Rhology have made me realize some of the problems involved in talking to people who believe their morals come from the Bible. There are several common refrains involved when arguing about this–“atheists have no basis for morality,” “without an objective morality/absolute moral code, you can’t judge other people’s morals,” “everyone has inborn morals from God, even if they don’t believe in him”–all of which are bound to pop up in any argument about secular morals. These all generally lead back to the point that God (and/or/through the Bible) provides a perfect and objective moral standard, without any of the problems that come from trying to define and justify a moral system in the absence of a deity. This idea is simply false: the Bible is emphatically not an objective moral standard; in fact, it fails in each of those points.

    We’ll tackle “standard” first, since it’s the easiest. What moral standard does the Bible provide? Do we take our morals only from the explicit commandments, or should we learn by example from the various heroes and virtuous people?

    If we are to learn only from the explicit commandments, then we run into a problem right away: there are an awful lot of apparent moral quandaries that never get discussed in the Bible. Are there moral implications of genetic engineering? Cybernetics? Overpopulation? Pollution? Birth control? Phone sex? Organ transplants? Euthanasia? Where the Bible touches on these issues, it does so only in the most broad, vague, and tangential fashions; there are no specific instructions on whether or not children should be given mood-altering drugs, no specific answers to questions about the introduction of novel organisms into foreign ecosystems. Are we to assume that the only moral issues are the ones that the Bible discusses directly? Is the choice to vaccinate your child morally neutral and equivalent to the choice to leave them unvaccinated? These are serious questions of real-life issues, on which the Bible is silent, preferring instead to tell us how best to combine goats and milk (Ex. 34:26) and the taxonomy of eunuchs (Mt. 19:12). Is there really no morally preferable choice in any of those situations?

    So, perhaps we are meant to also learn from example. If that’s the case, then what lessons should we take away from the heroes’ stories? Take Jephthah, for instance. He makes a deal with God that if God helps him win in battle against the Ammonites, then he’ll sacrifice the first thing that comes through his doorway when he returns home. Naturally, after the successful battle, his daughter comes out to greet him. There’s no Abraham/Isaac cop-out in this story: Jephthah follows through with his promise to God. So do we read this story as a cautionary tale about the price of testing God, or do we read it as a positive example of what the faithful should be willing to do in the name of the Lord? There’s enough material outside the story to support both interpretations; which moral should we be receiving?

    We could find similar quandaries with any number of Biblical characters–Joseph, Elisha, Solomon, Samson, etc.–maybe we shouldn’t be learning from all of their examples. So which characters should we be learning from? I suspect that Christians would say we ought not be following in the footsteps of Thomas, refusing to believe in the extraordinary until extraordinary evidence is provided to support the claims (despite the corroborating commandment of 1 Thessalonians 5:21). There are a litany of characters who are willing–even eager–to sacrifice their children based on God’s say-so, from Lot to Abraham to Jephthah to Yahweh, which suggests to me that according to Biblical morals, there’s nothing wrong with what Deanna Laney or Andrea Yates Dena Schlosser did*. Or perhaps we shouldn’t be learning from those particular examples. And what about the big guy himself? Should we be taking lesssons from God’s actions, or is he a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of father figure? After all, God does some pretty nasty stuff over the course of the Bible, commanding and committing genocide and inflicting plagues and so forth. Even the “do as I say” bit is difficult, given all the places where God issues direct commands that conflict with earlier laws and commandments (such as the various exhortations to kill women and children, contradicting the whole “thou shalt not murder” bit). Do you do as he said before, or as he’s saying now–what was written in stone, or what was given in a vision? This would be a lot easier if each of the real commandments started with “Simon Says.”

    Hitting on that point of contradictory commandments, we see quite a few such things throughout the Bible. There are places where some moral imperatives issued by the book contradict others, there are places where heroes’ explicit flaunting of those imperatives is cast in a positive light, and then there are places where God issues edicts that directly conflict with previously-issued laws and edicts. How can we call this set of morals a “standard” if it is internally inconsistent, and if God can change it on a whim? Or is the only standard “what God says goes”? If it’s the latter point, then how do we determine what God’s message is, given contradictory passages in the Bible and stories with ambiguous moral teachings? How do we distinguish between actual commands from God and paranoid delusions? After all, Dena Schlosser believed that God had told her to cut off her daughter’s arms, which isn’t exactly out of character for the God of the Bible (Mark 9:43, for instance); can we say with any degree of certainty whether or not she was actually receiving instructions from Yahweh?

    This segues nicely into the issue of objectivity**. In short, there isn’t any. In long, we have to make some distinctions here. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there is an omnipotent universe-creating God who has some idea of morality in his big giant head, and cares whether or not we follow it. To this end, he communicates with some Middle Eastern nomads through bushes and tablets, plays some role in their writing of a bunch of books full of teachings and laws, then later comes down himself to tell stories and make pronouncements which also eventually get written down. At this point, we could conceivably have three distinct moral codes: What-God-Thinks, What-God-Said, and What-Got-Recorded. In any human communication, these three things would be different–perhaps only subtly, but certainly different. What one thinks might be more nuanced and detailed than what one says, which may lose some inflection or connotation in the transition to writing (or may gain additional ones through the addition of punctuation and other conventions), not to mention that the writers are filtering what-one-says through their own perceptions. But, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume that God is super-awesome and communicated everything pertinent about his thoughts on morality to his various followers, who recorded these thoughts accurately–to make things simple (too late), we’ll assume that the Bible (as it was written) accurately and completely represents God’s moral codes, that What-God-Thinks and What-Got-Recorded are the same.

    That’s all well and good, but it’s certainly not the end of the story. Even assuming that God is perfect and infallible and a fantastic communicator, and assuming that his secretaries were all very thorough and accurate, the morals aren’t doing much good until they’re read. The process of reading is where any lingering objectivity goes right out the window. I’ll refer you to my post on communication for the lengthy discussion. Suffice it to say, each person who reads the Bible is going to read it in the particular context of their own knowledge, culture, and experiences. These contextual differences are going to have profound impacts on the message that the person receives***.

    Take, for example, Exodus 20:13: “Thou shalt not murder.” On the face of it, that’s pretty straightforward. “Murder” is a more specific term than, say, “kill” (which some translations use instead); “murder” implies some degree of intent, ruling out accidental deaths, and is usually reserved for humans, ruling out killing animals and plants and the like. It would seem that the Sixth Commandment is pretty cut-and-dry.

    It’s not. It doesn’t take more than a brief application of common sense to realize that, either. Even legally, “murder” is a broad term, and the difference between it and manslaughter is often a matter of prosecutorial discretion.

    Consider this: is it murder to kill someone who is trying to kill you? Legally, it isn’t; it’s self-defense. What if you’re killing someone who is trying to kill someone else, some innocent? If you could demonstrate that that person was a clear and present danger, then it’d be a pretty clear case of justifiable homicide. Is it murder to kill someone who is not attacking you, but has threatened or promised to kill you? Is there such a thing as pre-emptive self-defense? What if you think they’ve threatened you, or you just feel threatened by them? Is there a hard-and-fast line where it isn’t self-defense anymore? What if someone’s mere existence threatens your life–if you’re trapped on a raft or in the wilderness with another person, with only enough resources for one of you to survive, is it murder to kill the other person? Is it murder to continue living, ensuring that person’s death?

    This is, of course, ignoring other pertinent questions–is it murder to kill an enemy in war? What about the unborn? Is abortion murder? Is it murder to dispose of unused frozen zygotes from in vitro fertilization? Is execution murder? Is it murder if you don’t act to prevent someone’s death when it’s in your power to do so? If someone who is already facing imminent-but-painful death begs you for a quick and painless one that you are able to provide, would it be murder to kill them? Would it be wrong? I guarantee, for nearly all of these questions, that one can easily find Bible-believing Christians on every conceivable side.

    Some of this may seem like splitting hairs, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about moral philosophy, it’s that it exists specifically to split those hairs. The whole point of moral philosophy is to provide answers–or at least reasoned arguments–regarding these tough hair-splitting moral questions. We don’t generally have much problem reasoning out the right thing to do in the obvious situations; it’s the ones that walk the lines, the no-win scenarios, and whatnot that cause moral anxiety.

    Can the Bible be an objective moral standard if it doesn’t provide specific guidance on these questions? If it doesn’t provide a specific, detailed definition of murder (for instance), then how are we to determine what we shalt not do in these difficult situations? We started by assuming that God included his morals, completely and perfectly, in the Bible, but can any moral system be considered complete or perfect under any reasonable definition of either term if it leaves so much open to subjective interpretation?

    It ends up being like the disagreement between Creationists regarding where to draw the line between “fully ape” and “fully human” when presented with the progression of transitional hominids. When a worldview that only admits binary options is presented with a continuum, dividing that spectrum up into those two absolute options is a subjective and arbitrary process. If the Bible had said “So God created man in his own image, which was upright and somewhat hairy and with a prominent sloping brow, and…,” those Creationists might have had more agreement. Similarly, if the Bible said “Thou shalt not murder, which includes but is not limited to…,” these questions might be answered more objectively within Biblical morality.

    Or, rather than presenting us with the broad, general rules and expecting us to deduce the specifics, the more useful moral standard would provide us with a litany of specific situations and allow us to induce the generalizations. Sure, it would make the Bible exponentially longer, but after three hundred pages of various specific killing scenarios, it’d be pretty easy to reason “wow, God doesn’t much seem to like murder.” Instead, we have the general statement, which leaves us wondering “gee, what does God think about euthanasia?” and the like.

    And this is where the Bible fails on the “moral” point. Even disregarding the bits of the Bible that no sane person would call “moral,” the Bible fails as a moral guide because it provides no clear guidance on any of these moral issues. Even if the Bible is a full and accurate description of God’s moral sense, it is not a complete guide to the morals that a human would need. We face moral issues that are apparently beneath God’s notice, and in these cases we must make our own decisions, we must determine the moral options for ourselves. And the fact that we are able to do this on an individual level (e.g., euthanasia) and on a social one (e.g., self-defense and justifiable homicide legal exceptions) completely invalidates the supposed need for an objective moral standard. The Christian’s claim that morality requires the Bible falls apart once one realizes that we routinely face moral quandaries for which the Bible offers no clear answer. The moral decisions we are required to make on our own are far more varied, nuanced, and difficult than the morals that are prescribed in the Bible; if we can make moral decisions in the vast gray areas and unpleasant scenarios of the real world, then I can’t see how the broad generalizations like “thou shalt not murder” would present any sort of problem. As I mentioned above, it would be much easier to induce the general rules from the specific situations than to deduce the moral options in specific situations from a general rule. The morals provided by the Bible are the simplest building blocks, the things we can all agree on and end up at independently (and, incidentally, things that most cultures have done independently), based on the much more complex situations we run across in the real world.

    Where in the Bible we are meant to find morals is unclear; the stories are ambiguous, the commandments are overly general and often irrelevant, and there is little (if any) consistency. Most of the moral-making is ultimately left up to subjective interpretation, and the application of those morals is a matter for personal and social determination. The Bible does not provide the objective moral standard which so many of its adherents proclaim, and the notion that it is a necessary component for humans to have morals is self-refuting as a result. Moral philosophy, cultural anthropology, sociology, and biology have given us insights into how we make morals on the levels of the individual and as a society, and how moral codes and consciences developed in social animals. They have provided us with a way to develop our own systems of values, which then provide a way of distinguishing right from wrong in those situations where the division is indistinct. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have allowed us the freedom to do what people do (and indeed must do, regardless of their religious convictions) already–examine and evaluate their own values and come to their own conclusions–without the threat of damnation hanging over them should they make the wrong choice. Morals come not from above, but from within; they are a result of our individual instincts and our interactions with one another. Consequently, we are held responsible, made to account for our moral decisions, by ourselves and each other, not some external arbiter. The only “objective moral standard” is the one we set ourselves.


    *Some theists would likely say that these people were not actually receiving instructions from God, even though they believed they were. I’d like to know how they make that distinction. After all, can’t the same be said for Jephthah or Abraham? If you accept those stories, then you certainly can’t claim that it’s not within God’s character to demand a parent to sacrifice his or her child–Abraham certainly believed that this was something that God would command, and the Jephthah story confirms Abraham’s conviction. On what grounds can we claim with any kind of certainty that Abraham and Jephthah were actually receiving instructions from God to violate the “thou shalt not murder” commandment, while Dena Schlosser and Andrea Yates were schizophrenic or otherwise mentally ill?

    **There’s a further issue here with the definition of “objective,” which could probably warrant its own post. Generally, things that are “objective” are the things that can be verified through application of fact or reason. “Chocolate is brown” is an objective fact (admittedly with some definition-associated wiggle room), subject to verification or falsification; “chocolate is delicious” is a subjective opinion, which is not subject to proof or disproof. What, precisely, makes God’s opinion on morals objective? Why would his opinion be any less subjective than anyone else’s? Yes, God is more powerful, but what application of power can make subjective opinion into objective fact? God’s opinions are not subject to verification or falsification; they are as inaccessible to us as anyone else’s opinions. We can know them only by being told directly, by the subject, what the opinions are–and that runs us again into the problem of communication and interpretation.

    Yeah, this is definitely fodder for another post.

    ***I’ve omitted here another pertinent issue: the matter of translation and copying. Long before anyone reading it today can get a chance to interpret the Bible, it has already been filtered through multiple interpreters. We know from the historical record that the Bible has been subject to multiple alterations (intentional and unintentional) through the copying process, many of which were due to various dogmas and ideologies of centuries past. The translators are working from copies that are many generations removed from any originals, and which have built into them many of the copying errors and alterations from the past. Those translators must then make their own interpretations when choosing the best words in one language to convey ideas expressed in another. There is rarely (if ever) a 1=1 correspondence between languages, especially ones as distantly related as modern English and ancient Greek. Each idea in the original could be phrased any number of ways in the translation, and each translated version will be different depending on what the translator decided to emphasize–was her intent to preserve the closest literal meaning of the text, or to convey the poetry, or to try to present the concepts as clearly as possible with less regard to the particular language, or did she have another motive for her choices? For an example of how much impact this kind of interpretive choice has on a text, try opening up up any two versions of “The Iliad.”

    On moderate and liberal Christians

    Update: I’ve submitted this post to the Carnival of the Godless, partially in hopes of getting more feedback. I’ll be honest that I’m not entirely happy with how the post turned out (I don’t know that it fits the title, for instance, and I never really got to the point), but I also think it’s an honest examination of my somewhat-muddled and uninformed thought process on the matter. My point is that I’d like to get as many corrections, elaborations, and other responses as possible, so feel free (nay, encouraged) to leave comments.


    The comment thread on this post at the Atheist Experience blog got too long, too fast, for me to weigh in on the subject there. It’s something I’ve given some thought to (but not enough to keep this post from rambling, I’m afraid), so I’m going to write about it here.

    Conventional wisdom says that the fundamentalist, conservative, literalist Christians have the more legitimate claim to the label of Christianity–that they are more the “True Christians” than the liberals and moderates. Conversely, conventional wisdom says that the moderates are the more reasonable Christians, recognizing that the Bible is the product of humans at a particular time, and thus tailoring their beliefs to a changed (and changing) society.

    I don’t think either one of these is quite the case–at the very least, I don’t think that’s the whole story.

    First, there’s the conservatives’ claim to being the “True Christians,” interpreting the bible “literally” and trumpeting mantras like “God said it, I believe it” and so forth. This notion–like the notion that conservative Christians have a monopoly on “family values” and are “traditional”–is one that the fundamentalists have worked very hard to cultivate. The “tradition” of modern conservatism, though it clearly has earlier roots, is really only about a century old–kind of gives the lie to “True Christianity,” I would think. Wouldn’t the Catholics have the most legitimate claim to that? Or the Greek Orthodox church?

    As I mentioned before, there’s no such thing as a “literal” interpretation of any text. The nature of communication makes it damn near impossible. The truth is that fundamentalist Christians and moderate-to-liberal Christians both approach the Bible in basically the same way: picking and choosing passages to cite in order to prop up their pre-existing beliefs. That particular bit reminds me of that Anne Lamott quotation: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” That applies on a broader level–each Christian has a different concept of God, based on some mish-mash combination of what they believe from (and about) the Bible, what they believe from their church and pulpits, what they believe from the culture, what they believe from personal experience, and what they think ought to be the case. Fundies tend to center on believing that God punishes the wicked, rewards the virtuous, and that the events and teachings in the Bible are more or less accurate–at least, the Old Testament, Revelation, Acts, and the bits written by Paul, anyway. Moderate and liberal Christians tend to seize more on the “loving God” motif, and believe that the “core” teachings of the Bible are valuable, even if some of the more specific bits are the products of outdated politics, dogma, and prejudice. This “core” is largely summed up in the Sermon on the Mount and some of the other red-letter bits, and such Christians use this to handwave away much of the Old Testament (except Psalms, Proverbs, and selected other bits) and some of the Pauline books (mostly the more misogynistic and homophobic parts).

    I don’t feel entirely informed enough to make this distinction, but I’m going to give it a try anyway. For the Dispensationalist Christian (like Tim LaHaye), it seems that the focal point of the Bible is Revelation, and the primary Gospel is Matthew–because it’s the one written to claim thatwhere Jesus fulfills all the Old Testament prophecies. Consequently (or perhaps the other way around), they read the Bible the way Nostradamus’s fans read his works–as a book of otherwise unrelated words and phrases that can be strung together to form accurate prophecies. If you haven’t read anything Fred Clark has to say about the Dispensationalist mindset, you should. They’ll twist, pull, cut, and reinterpret phrases from all over the Bible to create their Rapture/Antichrist/Armageddon narrative. In arguments, this type of Christian tends to pull out the “fulfilled and to-be-fulfilled prophecy” card, citing Jesus’s fulfillment of OT prophecy, prophecies in Isaiah which were said to have been fulfilled in Isaiah, and vague prophecies of the End Times, which have been coming “any day now” for at least a century (and in earlier configurations, two millennia). Things that don’t fit are ignored as applying to a future ‘dispensation,’ whereas things that other Christians would recognize as directed at specific people are almost always talking to the current generation, no matter when that current generation exists.

    For the general conservative fundamentalist, I’d think that the focal book might be Genesis or Exodus (insert snarky comment here about how they never got any farther), but it’s far more likely that their favorite book of the Bible is actually “The Case for Christ” or “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.” Their primary Gospel is John (of which they’ve really only read one passage). Alternately, the preferred Gospel might be Mark, since that’s the one that talks about all the miracles that believers can perform (or even post-Gospel Acts, with Pentecost and speaking in tongues), but again, it depends on the fundie flavor (which I imagine is a lot like Bertie Botts’ every-flavor beans, except without the good ones). These fundies more often in arguments pull out the standard cards–Pascal’s Wager, “look at the trees,” “your God is evolution,” and so forth. I’m pretty sure that these folks are the source of bumper-sticker Christianity–their beliefs are mostly easily summed up in pithy phrases, their arguments for those beliefs are equally pithy, and their knowledge of Christian dogma comes mostly secondhand, from preachers promoting a particular interpretation. They’re casual believers; they haven’t put much thought into why they believe what they believe, or even the details and conclusions that follow from what they believe, but they know that they believe it, and they do so passionately. They can tell you that abortion should be illegal, but not what should happen to mothers who get illegal abortions. They can tell you that homosexuality is a sin, but aren’t familiar with similar sins like shellfish-eating and wearing blended fabric. They’re prepared to defend their beliefs and spread the gospel, so long as they don’t have to answer any follow-up questions. Watch most Atheist Experience episodes to get a feel for this kind of Christian*.

    The moderate Christians tend to be the recipients of the “casual Christian” label, though they certainly aren’t the only ones who deserve it. The conservative fundamentalists generally have shallow, unexamined beliefs, but they believe them fervently; the moderates have similarly shallow, unexamined beliefs, but they are fairly apathetic about it. They might go to church occasionally, or go to a moderate church, and they’ll probably put up some kind of show of faith at Christmas and Easter. Their central Bible book is Psalms, or more likely, “Mere Christianity,” and their favorite Gospel is split between the bits of John that they know (3:16, probably 1:1) and the bits of Luke that they know (mostly the stuff from Luke 2:10-12, or more famously, from Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”). In arguments, these folks often pull the same standard cards as the conservatives, at least to start–Pascal’s Wager, “look at the trees”–but usually end up going down the “well, you can’t know for sure” and “what’s the harm” path rather than the more threatening route of their conservative counterparts. They have their bumper stickers too, and billboards, but they’re more of the simple “God is love” sort of thing.

    I’m going to pause for a moment here to draw a bit more distinction between the conservative and moderate Christians. While I think both groups seize on the same common, popular Bible verses, I think they put different emphases on them. John 3:16, for instance; I’d say that conservatives read it as

    For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

    Moderates and liberals, on the other hand, I think read it as

    For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

    ** Incidentally, I think Catholics read it as

    For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

    Those wacky Catholics and their guilt.

    The liberal Christians, as I said before, look primarily to the Sermon on the Mount as their focal point for the Bible. There’s a gospel-centeredness to this, which makes it difficult (with my limited knowledge) to speculate on the gospel of choice; my guess would be John, since it’s the pretty one, but it’s possible that (at least among the more historically-savvy ones) it’s Mark, the earliest. They look for what they see as the “core message” of the Bible, which involves as much (if not more) picking and choosing bits as the Dispensationalists, though the bits they pick and choose and twist and reinterpret, obviously, are different ones. The liberals tend to be more informed–directly or indirectly–about the thoughts of various church fathers, classic theologians, and religious philosophers. Or perhaps they’re just informed about different ones; I suppose the average Dispensationalist might know as much about Scofield and Paley as the liberal knows about Weber and Augustine. Liberals generally accept the conclusions of historians and scientists, and they generally adhere to the moral codes of the modern age. They seize onto Jesus’s message of love and acceptance, apply it as much as they can to the rest of the Bible, and handwave away the rest. For Dispensationalists, the stuff they disagree with applies to some other dispensation; for liberals, the stuff they disagree with was mortal flaws that made their way into the book, or matters that applied in another day and time, or just don’t fit with the core message of the Bible. They tend to be less ostentatious with their faith. This is in part because they go with the flow of society, and thus aren’t trying to hold back or turn back progress, so they aren’t constantly waging war on modernism; in part, this is because they actually read the bit where Jesus said not to pray as the hypocrites do, but in the closets, and so they live and let live; in part, this is because they follow some variation of the Protestant ethic, in that they recognize that the best way to glorify God and to win converts is to live well and be a good example for others. I have had very few arguments with such Christians, and I’ve found that they’re most likely to agree with you on most points; they may pull out some theological arguments that propose a Deist god (i.e., any Cosmological or Transcendental argument); they may tell you that the Fundamentalists aren’t “real Christians,” that they “follow Jesus, not the Bible,” and that the Bible was written by people, but they’re just as likely to quote G.K. Chesterton for some reason.

    I think it’s a mistake to think that any of these groups has any claim to the title “True Christian;” in fact, I’m not even sure what such a person would be. Jesus and the Biblical authors wrote so many conflicting things that it’s impossible to pull any coherent philosophy of life from the book without ignoring large swaths of it, and we’re only helping the fundamentalists if we don’t recognize that they’re ignoring just as much of the book as the liberals are. For every “it is an abomination” that the liberals ignore, there’s a “judge not” that the conservatives discard. They’re all “salad bar” Christians, they’re just on different sides of the bar, and the Liberals are willing to say “that cottage cheese has gone bad,” while the fundies will say “that cottage cheese is perfectly fine, but I’m going to let someone else try it.”

    Part of the problem, part of why this is so widespread (I think), is that we’ve gotten to the point where even the liberals and moderates seem tacitly to accept the fundamentalists’ claim to the term. Perhaps it’s just because the liberal position is more complicated and more difficult to communicate; when push comes to shove, the fundies can point to the passage in the Bible and say “God says it, I believe it, no more questions.” At that point, the liberal has to explain that the Bible isn’t meant to be taken ‘literally,’ or that Jesus said otherwise, or that they’re ignoring the context, or something, and I think to the casual viewer, that’s tantamount to them cutting off the branch they’re sitting on. I can see very few good ways for a liberal Christian to easily call into doubt the Fundamentalist positions on most things without undermining their own position and making them look like wishy-washy quasi-believers. There are some matters on which the liberal position is more clearly the correct one, dogmatically and textually–once again, see the Dispensationalist End Times narrative–but it’s hard to argue that the Levitican and Deuteronomian laws against homosexuality don’t apply in light of one verse in Galatians and Jesus’s general message of love. I think, to some degree, the liberals recognize this difficulty–and perhaps even internalize the fundamentalists’ claims to some degree, causing some measure of self-doubt and insecurity–and that combines with their general non-confrontational stance regarding their faith to prevent them from speaking out against the loud fundamentalists in large numbers.

    Which moves us on to the problem of which position is the more reasonable one. The conventional wisdom is that the liberal position has that claim, but I don’t know that I agree. I imagine the people who make this claim are the people who consider themselves most rational, and so we assume that “reasonable” means “generally comes to the same conclusions we’ve come to.” But we have to remember that reason can take you to any conclusion depending on what your premises are. Through one method or another, both the left and right wings of Christianity have come to*** the same basic premise: the God of the Bible exists, came to the Earth as Jesus Christ, then died on the cross for the sins of humanity, and promises Heaven for some and Hell for others****. Following from this premise, though, they end up at wildly different courses of action.

    The right-leaning Christians take this premise, realize that the Bible is their only source for what God thinks, what Jesus said, and what the secret password into Heaven is, and conclude that they ought to be following what’s in the Bible as closely as they can in order to avoid Hell. There are a number of different logical avenues which can lead from this point to the belief that the Bible is a true, accurate, and perfect representation of what God wants, but I think it boils down to the point that, since it’s the only source for what God says, they have to treat it as perfect even if it isn’t. Christians of this sort will sometimes admit (usually when condemning Christians of the more liberal variety) that if you treat any part of the Bible as metaphorical or symbolic or otherwise not-true, then you might as well toss out the whole thing: either it’s all true, or none of it is true. This is a fallacy, to be sure, but underlying it is a valid concern and criticism for their liberal brethren: if it’s not all true, then how do you know what parts of it are true? The fundamentalist (ostensibly) never needs to face this quandary, since they (ostensibly) accept all of the Bible as “literally” true.

    Their other traits follow from that conclusion. Knowing the threat of Hell, they work tirelessly to convince others that Hell is real and that they know how to avoid it. They’ve been saved from its fiery jaws, and they’re going to try to make sure that everyone else gets saved too (and the ones they can’t save–the ones working against them–are already in its grip and beyond their help). They dedicate as much of their lives as they can to praising and glorifying God with all the energy and volume of a castaway trying to signal a passing cargo plane, as though trying to draw the attention of the omnipotent and earn his approval. They’ve saturated their lives with worship and work to wedge it into everyone else’s lives, through sermons and tracts and street-corner preaching and legislation and education and media punditry and social mores and any other outlet they can find, in hopes that doing so will demonstrate their devotion, glorify their deity, increase their numbers, and protect them from annihilation and damnation should God decide that America looks an awful lot like Gomorrah.

    On the other hand, you have the liberal and moderate Christians. Again, they’ve arrived at the same basic premises as the conservatives with regard to God’s nature and existence, and the importance of Jesus. There’s a chicken-and-egg situation with the next bit, though, where I’m not sure what precedes what. Moderate and liberal Christians have somehow come to a largely different set of premises in addition to the ones they share with the fundies, the sort of premises that I imagine we’d consider average for people in the 21st century western world: they value freedom and equality, they think science and senses are generally reliable, they generally accept the morals of the society around them, and so forth. They also have a different take on the Bible; though it’s the only primary source that discusses (with any authority) the mind of God and the story of Jesus, they think that it’s only somewhat reliable and accurate–certainly not the icon of perfection that the fundamentalists elevate it to. They read the Bible for its ‘core message’ and justify or ignore the parts that don’t fit. In addition to the Bible, such Christians tend to accept another source for their beliefs: alternately called “faith” or “a personal relationship with God/Christ,” who typically speaks to them “in their heart.”

    Like I said, there’s a chicken/egg issue here: did the belief in the God relationship come first, allowing them to decide what parts of the Bible no longer apply and what God’s real opinions are, or did the acceptance of modern morals and science and such lead to the belief that such conclusions were the result of a personal connection to the divine? I can’t say, though I suspect it’s not a simple causal relationship.

    Anyway, this connection to God makes each liberal Christian his or her own Pope, able to update the canon and dogma as necessary, on a personal level. Each claims that their pronouncements have some divine weight behind them, though they may come to different conclusions, but that’s certainly not a problem faced by liberals alone. They are able, through their relationship with God, to determine what the “core message” of the Bible is, what that means for the other parts, and what God’s message for the modern age must be. God, apparently, is pretty cool with the trappings of modern society that the fundamentalists reject; he thinks that believers shouldn’t be ostentatious about their faith, he sees virtuous living and skillful craftsmanship in his followers’ vocations as glorification of him, and he might even accept other routes to Heaven than through Jesus. He puts some emphasis on works as a key to salvation, loves his creations, and encourages them above all things to love one another. Consequently, they generally adopt a live-and-let-live philosophy toward people of other faiths, rather than the obvious and constant proselytization of the conservatives. They don’t see the need to enact their beliefs into law, since religion is a personal thing, to be done in the closets and not out in the open as the hypocrites. God said “love thy neighbor,” not “force thy neighbor to act in accordance with thy beliefs.”

    Anyway, back to the main point of all this: who’s more reasonable? While the liberal position is the one most in line with what modern society would consider reasonable, I’m not sure how well it logically follows from their beliefs. It’s easy to see the logical progression of fundamentalism; if you believed in the sort of God that they do, you’d want to make sure that no one–particularly yourself–got on his bad side. The liberals have a more difficult progression, and I think it’s here that some of the fundamentalist criticisms hold water. The Bible is, for better or worse, the closest thing we have to a primary source on the life and teachings of Jesus. It is also the only generally-agreed-upon testimony of the morals, acts, and commandments of the Christian God. And yet, the liberals actively dismiss parts of it as metaphor or parable or mistake or outdated teaching, in favor of impressions and feelings they get internally, which they believe to be divine. This poses a problem: do they assert that the fundamentalists, conservatives, and others who come to different conclusions lack a personal rapport with the divine? By what right and authority can they make such a distinction? Wouldn’t such an argument boil down to diametrically-opposed shouts of “God told me I’m right”? Or do they recognize the legitimacy of the conservatives’ claim to personal relationships with God, but acknowledge that he’s telling them different things?

    Moreover, how do the liberals know that their relationship is with God at all? The fundamentalists are likely to say that any voice speaking in their hearts things that contradict the Bible must be the trickery of Satan; how do the liberals know that this voice which tells them things they want to hear but conflict with the Bible is the voice of the divine and not the damned?

    Those would be the criticisms from the fundamentalists, and I’m not entirely sure how the liberal Christian would respond to them, except to cite again the “core message” of the Bible. I don’t think that would convince the fundamentalists; their approaches to the Bible are vastly different, and any response about the “core message” is going to fall well outside of the fundamentalists’ framework. But I have another criticism, one which others (both atheists and theists) have leveled: if you have a personal relationship with God through which he shares his teachings and prescriptions, and if much of the Bible is flawed and outdated, then why do you need the Bible at all? Having God give you the straight scoop on his up-to-the-minute revised revelations makes the Bible an outdated edition, several generations removed from what’s currently available, and not even particularly useful for the end-of-chapter questions. Why would liberal Christians assign any significance to the Bible at all? Sentimentality? Why justify any part of it? Why use it as an authoritative reference? If you’re acknowledging that it was written and assembled and translated by flawed people, and if you’re asserting that your personal revelation trumps theirs, then why even consult it? Or at the very least, why give it any more prominence than the writings of the similarly-inspired theologians, poets, and other writers who inform your faith?

    Or, to unite this with the fundamentalist critique: if you don’t believe all of the Bible, why believe any of it?

    Now, lest we think that the fundamentalists have the monopoly on criticism here, their devotion to the Bible opens them up to a criticism from the liberals. The liberals accept the history of the Bible, the sordid tales of copyists and committees, of discarded books and dogmas past that are attested to by all the available evidence (not that that would be convincing for some). They accept–even assert–that the book is not perfect, that it was transcribed, copied, and translated by imperfect humans who may have even been imperfectly interpreting their divine inspiration. I think the liberal, in general, would be likely to say that no human’s interpretation of the divine is perfect, that no human work is perfect, and that their own apprehension of both divine and mundane may be imperfect. They’d be likely, I think, to say that only God is perfect, and that elevating the Bible (or anything else of this mortal world) to the status of perfection is idolatry. Were they particularly savvy, they might point out that even if the Bible were perfect, the people reading and interpreting it are not, and thus the fundamentalist is not merely asserting the Bible’s perfection, but their own as well. They are engaging in self-idolatry, declaring themselves perfectly able to sort out the will and mind of God from the imperfect writings of first-century preachers. I’m not sure, but I don’t think most liberal Christians pretend to the kind of certainty approaching personal infallibility that the fundamentalists so often do.

    And you’d think that the fundies would be all over this, what with their general acceptance (and promotion) of the idea that this Earth is fallen, tainted, imperfect, and potentially even ruled by Satan. Why is the Bible excepted from this assessment? Accepting its history should fit perfectly into their worldview. Instead, not only will they deny it, defend its unity, and proclaim its perfection, but in many cases they’ll claim that one particular arbitrary version is the only perfect one, above all others. They accomplish this through an amazing display of compartmentalization, denial, and Olympic-level quality gymnastics, when they’d only have to apply their worldview consistently to make the whole mess fit.

    So I think there are significant failures of reason on both sides, some more fundamental than others. Inasmuch as the beliefs and practices follow logically from the premises, I think the edge might indeed go to the conservatives, though I think both sides have some pretty distinct fallacies to deal with. Both, as far as I’m concerned, are dealing with unsound premises–and I think the unsound premises of the conservative position are far more fundamental–and the other problems spiral out of that. Either way, I know which group I’d rather associate with.

    I recognize that all of this is a mishmash of speculation, subjective experience, armchair psychology, barely-informed theology, and broad generalizing, but I think there may be something to all this. I won’t say that these categories are entirely distinct, accurately named, or all-inclusive. I’m drawing very vague lines here, between very large and overlapping categories, and if I’m making some obvious errors, feel free to correct me. But what I’ve tried to accomplish with this overlong screed is a fairly fine and simple response to the two common claims I mentioned above. To say that either the liberals or conservatives has a more legitimate claim to the term “True Christian” is problematic at best, and tends to fallaciously favor the fundamentalists. To say that either conservative or liberal Christianity is more “reasonable” entirely depends on whether you mean “reasonable” in a casual sense of “not crazy,” or “reasonable” in the more specific and accurate sense of “well-reasoned.” In that case, it really relies upon counting the fallacies leading from unsound premises to invalid conclusions, and I’d have to see a side-by-side array of the different specific arguments, with premises and conclusions laid out specifically, in order to make such a distinction (though my inclination is that the conservative position may follow more directly from the flawed premises).

    In other words, neither claim is accurate, and we (atheists and moderate/liberal theists alike) should consider being more careful with the assumptions we make and the assumptions our language betrays with regard to who are the real and reasonable Christians. To do less risks granting prestige and legitimacy to those who haven’t earned it.


    *I think the modern conservative Christians have a lot in common with the medieval Catholic laity and the 17th Century Protestant laity. In all three cases, the vast majority have read little, if any, of the Bible; the old Catholics weren’t allowed to, the early Protestants were largely illiterate, and the modern group is a little of both, with apathy, short attention span, and arrogant ignorance mixed in. Like those early protestants, the modern conservatives get their beliefs mostly from popular reinterpretations–four hundred years ago, if a family owned two books, they were the Bible and “Pilgrim’s Progress,” which uses tortuously obvious metaphor to turn the Christian experience into a narrative. Today, I suspect that “Evidence that Demands a Verdict,” “The Case for Christ,” “Mere Christianity,” and “Left Behind” (among other books) have supplanted Bunyan in most conservative Christians’ homes. Like those lay Catholics of the middle ages, conservative Christians tend to often look to God and the trappings of Christianity as a source of magic. This theme comes up repeatedly in Fred Clark’s analysis of “Left Behind,” particularly toward the end. Where the medieval laity would steal communion wafers and use corrupted versions of Latin phrases to try to conduct more-or-less Pagan magic rituals, the modern conservative seems to view prayer as something akin to calling upon a finicky genie, and being saved binds God to the believer, forming a magical shield which protects them against Chaotic Evil. As long as you say the right magic words, God will reveal himself to you and protect you, but only if you do it right (see also: the Sinner’s Prayer).

    And if the conservatives are modern-day Catholic or Protestant laity, then the Dispensationalists are modern-day Gnostics. I wrote a historically and theologically inept paper to that end in undergrad, but that thesis only becomes more and more apparent as I look into the blatant exclusivist Manicheanism practiced by the likes of Tim LaHaye.

    **It’s even more nuanced than this, I think–Dispensationalists and other End-Timers, with their fixation on the Rapture as an (otherwise indistinguishable) alternative to death, would put even more emphasis on the “shall not perish,” while the other conservatives (with similar fears but different fixations) would emphasize the “have everlasting life.”

    ***I say “come to” because these beliefs aren’t (necessarily) axiomatic. Some Christians of either bent may consider the premise that God exists and loves us to be foundational, axiomatic, transcendent, or something along those lines, but they still initially arrived at that premise through some other method–being told by parents, being convinced by arguments, etc. That method of first convincing had to follow some other path of reasoning, relying on other axioms–Mommy is always right, if a belief is comforting then I should believe it, if an argument is convincing then it must be true, etc.

    ****Of course, there are Christians with different takes on this–non-Trinitarians, universal salvationists, folks who deny that Hell is a real place, and so forth. I’m drawing broad generalizations again.

    Hail to the king, baby.

    This is where the joke about Deadite Jesus goes.This is probably going to come off as rude, condescending, and generally disrespectful. I apologize, and I invoke Hanlon’s Razor in my defense.

    It’s that time of year again, though I wasn’t sure until I Googled it. I’d been seeing ads for fish sandwiches at places that normally don’t advertise their fish, so I figured Lent was coming up. Yesterday, they mentioned on the radio that it was Fat Tuesday, and therefore Mardi Gras. Much later in the day, the thought occurred to me: “Didn’t that mean something about Ash Wednesday? Is that the day following Fat Tuesday, or the day preceding Maundy Thursday, which I’m pretty sure is the day before Good Friday, which is right before Easter?” I Googled Ash Wednesday, and it came up at the top: February 25th, 2009.

    For the first time in years, I was forewarned.

    See, I don’t know that I’ve ever celebrated Ash Wednesday in any particular fashion. I’ve certainly never participated in Lent, and I don’t even remember hearing about it until I was in High School. Since then, and especially since I’ve been an atheist, I’ve thought of Ash Wednesday as “the day when it’s rude to tell someone they’ve got a little dirt on their face.”

    I don’t mean anything by it, really. It’s not me flaunting my heathenness, it’s not about belittling anyone’s faith–as I confessed some time ago, I just don’t realize it’s intentional until after I say something. Open mouth, insert foot, hope there’s no palm fronds on the bottom of it.

    This year, that could potentially cause actual problems, since I’m working as a government employee around plenty of churchgoers of various sorts, and trying to be inconspicuous when I mumble over that one line of the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. So, for the first time in quite awhile, I enter into Ash Wednesday with the knowledge that it’s Ash Wednesday, rather than figuring it out at 6:30 in the evening after seeing the seventh person in a row at Wal-Mart in need of a damp washcloth.

    Incidentally, while the rest of the nation is getting monochromatic face-painting, I’ll be spending my afternoon judging a Science Fair. Good? Bad? I’m the guy with the clipboard.

    More suffering

    I was rereading this post tonight, when a thought occurred to me. The thought’s not going to mean much unless you go read the old post, so I’m putting it below the fold.

    Job suffered more than Jesus did. Going along the thought toward the end of that old post, wouldn’t suffering on the level of Job’s have been more the sort of thing that we’d expect for someone suffering for all of humanity, past, present and future? Wouldn’t it be more in line with scriptural precedent for Jesus to have suffered like Job did? Rather than having to torture some passage about “piercing” as though it were a prophecy of crucifixion, Christians trying to demonstrate prophecies about Jesus could point to the Book of Job and say “look!”

    I can imagine it now, with Christ amassing a following, starting his church in defiance of the Pharisees, marrying and starting a family, and ultimately making it to the apex of his life when God starts taking things away from him–first his followers, then his children, then his wife, then his health (but not so much that he is actually close to dying, to joining his family in the afterlife). Finally, his former friends betray him, the Pharisees force him to recant his message and deny his teachings before the masses, then betray him again to the Romans. Finally as he rots, broken and bullied and impotent in a Roman dungeon, Jesus looks toward the sky through a barred window. Job had the patience of a saint, but Jesus has the patience of a man, and he cries out–“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” And unlike Job, he curses God, unable to remain loyal when he has lost so much. That’s the kind of suffering that I’d expect from someone who’s suffering for everyone. It seems like ending the Jesus story with him losing faith, committing the unforgivable sin–with God denying God–would be the more poignant and powerful resolution.

    More and more, it seems like God just doesn’t understand good writing.