First Principles

Mano Paul continues his latest series of posts about putting “first things first”, but has not yet honestly engaged with his own first principle of “the Bible is true.” From Know, one of five of his “first” things so far:

Many [in] the world have attempted and some still continue to attempt to discredit the authority and credibility of the Holy Bible, which is in reality a love story of God unto man. It is the autobiography of Jesus, from the beginning (Genesis) until the final unveiling of him in all of his glory (Revelation). I sometimes wonder how a love story can be hated so much and when vile and baseless words are spoken against the Bible, the followers of Christ need not be discouraged or dejected, but instead take solace in the fact that all Scripture (every word of God in the Holy Bible) is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16) and the holy men who wrote the words of God, wrote not out of their own will, but after being moved by the Holy Spirit of God (1 Peter 1:21).

So Mano’s evidence that the Bible is true is…the Bible says so? He should recognize a circular argument and argument of authority fallacy when he sees them. I wish there is more I could construct out of the corpses of these arguments to argue against, but I fear there is so little corpse left that I can do nothing without putting words in his mouth.

Mano apparently believes that historical scholarship is something akin to slander or libel; he seems to take some personal offense to claims that the Bible is just another book of fiction. We can even grant him 100% of his belief that the book is a love story, yet still have no reason to believe that it is actually true. We can even agree 100% that we love the story ourselves, yet still have no reason to believe that it is actually true. Christians’ personal offense does not count as a point of evidence in favor of the Bible’s truth, either.

Mano elaborates further to say that the Bible is what allows us to know Jesus’s character, and “upon knowing him…we can take him at his word.” He also warns us that “the words [sic] of God is not for private interpretation, for anyone who adds or subtracts from the scripture will be held accountable.” (Rev 22:19) Charitably, let’s ignore for a moment that this isn’t a circular argument trying to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, and pretend that the Bible gives us insight into Jesus’s character.

Jesus is vain and divisive. He would rather turn families against each other (Matthew 10:35) and make them each others’ enemies (Matthew 10:36) than allow them to love each other more than they love Him (Matthew 10:37).

Jesus approves of the capital offenses in Mosaic Law (Matthew 5:17), including the prescriptions for murder of disbelievers (Zechariah 13:3), women who can provide no proof of their virginity before marriage (Deuteronomy 22:21), and adulterers (Deuteronomy 22:22). This short list of crimes punishable by death only scratches the surface of the Old Testament evil of which Jesus must approve according to Matthew.

If this is the kind of god we should take at its word, it seems that we should only do so out of fear of wrath and punishment, not because we believe it truly loves us.

Points to Ponder

The Bible is full of evidence of the horrible moral poverty of our early ancestors. Fortunately, most of us have grown beyond the Dark Ages, and we don’t have to believe it is true. Why does Mano say we must? What reason or evidence can he provide us to persuade us to believe as he does? Mano agrees that he must not judge others before he is sure he isn’t guilty of the same crime: how does he know he is correct about the Bible before he judges us to be wrong about it? Shouldn’t he be sure his message is correct, before he hurries out into the world to repeat it?

 

Reconciliation

There is a modern religious thought pattern, called ecumenicalism, which is aimed at reconciling religious traditions or otherwise bringing them under the same umbrella. Greta Christina covers the basic premise of ecumenical religion in chapter 7 of her excellent book Why Are You Atheists So Angry? On its face, the ecumenical approach seems vastly superior to the violent interfaith clashes that have become the hallmark of the Crusades, much of middle eastern history, and indeed the Old Testament itself. Although many of those selfsame religions advocate violence against outsiders, most reasonable ethical systems would agree that, faced with the two choices, it is better to espouse a “live-and-let-live” policy than a “kill the infidels” policy. Indeed, most would agree that committing to violence is the same as admitting we have lost the argument.

However, ecumenicalism is also a false alternative to religious violence. It is also a mode of losing the argument. The ecumenical form of “reconciliation” is little more than “I’ll let you believe your nonsense if you let me believe mine.” Or worse: “We can both believe our separate nonsense as long as we agree to punish anyone who calls it nonsense.” It is the modern institutional form of “agree to disagree”. To nonbelievers: “agree to engage against only the faithless, not each other.”

While most anti-theists argue against religion on the grounds that religious beliefs don’t agree with reality (or don’t even intersect with reality), religions should in principle have the same kinds of disagreements with each other when they make conflicting claims. Indeed, anti-theists consider any clear interfaith conflict as a further point in evidence against the truth claims of those religions. Ecumenicalism is just another way the godless are frustrated to watch as anti-epistemology is perpetuated.

In a recent conversation with a friend of mine, I postulated that holy war might be on one end of a spectrum, with ecumenicalism on the other. More specifically: physically violent confrontation is one extreme, complete avoidance of confrontation is on the other. If approaches to religious disagreement can fall elsewhere on this spectrum, then taking only one of the two extreme approaches is a false dichotomy.

I asked her what she thought other alternatives might be, or if there were even others not on the spectrum at all. She suggested that the death of all humanity might be another choice. I admit I was shocked that I hadn’t thought of an approach that would be more extreme than holy war, but I suppose I just don’t have a believer’s imagination. Thinking more about how such a world view might be possible, it is clear that this is God’s exact approach in the Bible: when God doesn’t like how his creations are behaving, it is not out of character to commit genocide on a whole race or tribe, destroy their firstborn children, or even to flood the entire earth and start over with virtually a clean slate. Indeed, if it is true as the faithful believe that human nature is basically sinful, a utilitarian of any stripe would be hard-pressed to justify the continued existence of billions of our kind.

Fortunately, we are not yet forced by evidence to agree that the existence of humanity is a net negative proposition for the universe. Even if we allow that our species is somehow a cumulative blight in its current state, the case would also have to be made that there is no way for us to ever change our ways and earn our place in the “plus” column. Even the faithful have to agree that this possibility must still exist, or else God would have destroyed us all again; it is His way. It is unfortunate that some believers are actively trying to bring about the conditions they think their holy books foresee as the precursors to a “second coming”, but that is only yet another reason that the faithless feel compelled to act.

Not being extremists or fundamentalists, many atheists advocate and/or espouse a position closer to the middle of the continuum: we adamantly oppose violence of all kinds, especially religiously-motivated violence (including male and female circumcision, stonings, non-sparing of the rod, and other atrocities believers inflict on their own kind), but we also actively engage in confrontation of religious ideas. In a culture of religious freedom and free speech, our answer to religion is not to commit violence against it, try to outlaw it, or use any more force than the power of argumentation. C.S. Lewis, a favorite author of Christian apologetics, would probably agree with our approach (Till We Have Faces):

One of his maxims was that if we cannot persuade our friends by reasons we must be content “and not bring a mercenary army to our aid.” (He meant passions.)

Mano Paul writes about reconciliation, too. His biblical sources might be interpreted either way, but Mano apparently believes that Christians are only obligated to reconcile themselves with other Christians. Indeed, his interpretation seems even to be at odds with the the source material when he says:

Putting First Things First, we must first be reconciled with God and we must reconcile with other believers who may have offended us or whom we may have offended.

Whether or not it is necessary to reconcile with non-believers, Matthew 5:24 does seem unequivocal about the order of things: first set right with man, then return to worship. If the correct order is to first attempt reconciliation with God before settling with man, it would be easy to keep moving that goalpost forever and never take account of one’s fellows. Many Christians seem to agree that we can never live up to God’s standards, so a believer might spend his entire earthly life chasing God’s “friendship and harmony”, never taking the chance to settle differences with the rest of us.

In his Points to Ponder, Mano asks:

Are you reconciled with God? Are you reconciled with men/women? If not, stop your worship and first get reconciled before returning to worship. This is the best gift you can give God.

Atheists have few uniting principles beyond a disbelief in gods. Rationalists and skeptics work toward a world in which poor epistemology is eradicated because we believe the power of science and technology is responsible for the greatest reductions in pain and suffering in human history. The power of these forces is only hindered by archaic and irrational belief systems. We hope that Mano will attempt to settle and resolve his differences with the faithless, because we want him to be a part of the forward progress of humanity (not the backward downforce of antiquity), and we believe the result of that reconciliation is that he will see that atheism is the more reasonable position to take on the question of gods.

If nothing else, the only way we learn new things is to discuss them with those that don’t believe exactly as we do. Perhaps the reconciliation will even bring nonbelievers closer to his god.

Offense, Defense

Mano Paul admits that his proselytizing evokes a negative reaction in his coworkers. In principle, I agree with his argument that “if the truth offends, then let it offend.” In practice, however, there is a time and a place for the “truth”. On her deathbed, this is not the time to tell a believer her faith in the afterlife is unfounded. At work, there are rarely times when it is appropriate to discuss religion. As a representative of US government entities, no way not ever. Even when appropriate, Christians rarely actually engage in a two-way discussion instead of a one-way browbeating sermon. When the Christian majority goes on offense, religious minorities rarely have any choice but to go on defense.

Hypocritically, when non-believers push back on this aggressive behavior, Christians claim that they are the ones under attack. They don’t often find themselves in the ring with those who voice legitimate disagreements, and can’t apparently understand the feeling of religious oppression they cause in the non-believers around them. Unfortunately, they can only interpret legitimate disagreement as attack, and only rarely do they ever attempt to engage “those who reject the Gospel” about the actual truth.

If Mano honestly believes he is called to convey the message of Jesus and reach out to others, he should pay more attention when his tactics are pushing away the people he intends to convert. If Mano honestly believes that his ministry has the truth, he should have no trouble engaging non-believers to show us why we are wrong. I promise I won’t be offended.

Blood Libel

Mano Paul claims that allegations of anti-Semitism were unfounded when The Passion of the Christ was released. Since he blocks comments from dissenters and won’t reply directly to any disagreements, we can only guess at what he means by this statement.

Does he mean that the people who are responsible for the movie are not anti-Semitic or did not intend such a message? If this is the case, the best we can hope for his mistake is willful ignorance. While it may not have been widely known at the time, since then Mel Gibson has shown his true colors. Even if his movie is only a subconscious reflection of his hate, it’s clear that there are plenty of reasonable grounds to interpret the production as hateful toward Jews.

Does he mean that the actual events of the Bible aren’t anti-Semitic? Here I would actually agree – the Jews aren’t the villain in the story. According to the narrative, the ultimate cause for Jesus’ torture is God. It is God’s plan to create a son on earth in order to torture him and kill him in redemption for the sins of his creations. The men in the story, who are naively portrayed as villains, are simply God’s actors for dramatizing his macabre snuff film. Judas, Pontius, and indeed the cabal of Jewish betrayers are all integral to the larger plot. 30 pieces of silver are merely a distraction to trump up a puppet’s role and obscure the evil of the puppetmaster.

Whatever Mano means when he dismisses claims of anti-Semitism, he should first consider the centuries of blood libel tradition that have cursed the Jewish people by the same wicked hands as Jesus – those that kill and torture in the name of religion. If only those people had instead blamed their misfortune on the true perpetrator (God) instead of the innocent pawns, perhaps the world would not still be shackled with bigotry and ignorance in His name.

Points to Ponder

Mano asks our response to this God who willingly gave his life for us, who supposedly did it of his own free will. He then asks what we will choose to do with our free will. There are so many things wrong with the premises of these questions that a reasonable answer is not even possible until we understand what these even mean.

Presumably, Mano is not just preaching to the choir. If he honestly intends to win converts, he must not assume that nonbelievers have any understanding of the Trinity. (While we’re on the subject, we should hope he realizes that nobody has any reasonable understanding of the Trinity, and indeed most claims are that it is beyond human understanding.) To a nonbeliever, there does not appear to be any justification for believing that God gave his life for us. Perhaps there is a case for God giving his son’s life for us (though a few hours of torture and a few days of “death” followed by heaven forever hardly seems a terrible sacrifice). However, if this was always God’s plan, then it hardly seems like Jesus had any choice in the matter.

Most apologetics for theodicy include some requirement for free will (e.g. if we weren’t allowed to do evil, then we wouldn’t have free will). Saving that argument for later, we must at best assume Mano allows for human free will if he asks us what we will choose with the knowledge of the Jesus story.

So how does a non-Christian respond to a God who kills his son and then makes the only requirement of his inherently sinful creations for avoiding eternal suffering NOT behaving ethically and good, but simply believing that this torture story is the best plan an infinitely loving God could come up with? We think it sounds more like a story that some dimwitted clerics came up with, and we don’t understand why you believe it, either.

Justification

Humans have an evolved sense of social justice. This is not only an advantageous, but probably also necessary trait for a social species whose members rely on each other for survival. Humans are also generally bad at logic. There is no better simultaneous example of both of these than the single test: Wason’s selection criteria.

Naturally, we would expect a belief system which includes concepts about eternal reward and punishment to be particularly appealing to the human brain. It is easy for us to imagine scenarios, especially in a modern world of diminished accountability relative to our small-scale ancestral tribes, where a person could literally get away with murder and not be punished for it in this life. So we see in every major religion this fulfillment of the human desire for justice, whether we call it karma, or heaven, or hell.

Mano Paul notices that maybe Jesus actually didn’t get such a good deal. After all, it doesn’t seem that fair that Jesus would have to take the punishment for everyone else’s sins! I imagine most of his fellow humans would agree. Well apparently Jesus does get his justice when he gets to come back to earth and judge all of us sinners; believers call this the second coming. He will have his revenge! Forget about all that stuff he said about turning the other cheek.

Is this logical? Christians proclaim the greatness of Jesus is that he died for us and absolved of our sins. It sort of detracts from all that greatness if he gets to Lord it over us and punish us if we don’t obey and serve him. Mano claims in this post that all that is necessary to be saved from Jesus’ vengeful return is to just believe in him. “He will accept [us] just as [we] are.” Yet in his series of 7 steps, he claims that a Christian has to do much more than just believe. What does Mano actually think is required to avoid being punished for being born as we are?

What kind of justice is it to create a world that looks like it is the product of natural processes with no reproducible evidence of a supernatural being like the one that will supposedly torture us forever, and then torture us forever for not believing in that being? That kind of thinking is neither logical nor merciful.

God Phishing

If Mano Paul is any good at his day job, he should know how to check the headers on his email from God. Here’s what I found when I looked at all my god-spam:

Received: from somerabbis.il (10.1.1.1) by constantine.rome.it (10.1.1.2); Fri, 11 Jan 325 14:45:21 +0100
Content-Type: multipart/hearsay;
X-Mailer: Nicaean Council Decreer 1.0
X-Complaints-To: nobody@notlistening.net
List-Unsubscribe: hahahyeahright@weproselytizeforever.org

I’m not sure why anyone should take such a chain letter seriously. It could hardly be less believable if it had come directly from Nigeria. Normally, it’s best not to respond to spammers since all it does is confirm that they’ve got a real address and it’ll just invite even more spam. However, in some cases they’re just going to keep spamming anyway so all you can do is try to fight back.

God’s promises of everlasting life are not unlike penis enlargement scams. “Here’s something you really want, all you have to do is give us a little bit of money and swallow these lies pills!” They appeal to the desperate and gullible. But obviously people keep buying, because the god-bothering spam keeps coming.

What is my response? Prove it, God. Prove that your magic penis enlargement scheme is going to give me everlasting life. You’re God, you should know what it would take to convince me, and it’s a hell of a lot more than a legion of deluded converts convinced by nothing more than fourth century chain mail; when I look around, all I see is a bunch of normal-sized dicks.

You Bet Your Life

Mano Paul doubles down on the afterlife. As in his previous post, Mano is so convinced of the existence of the afterlife that he is willing to bet not only his, but his family’s current lives on it. What’s the harm?

There are no doubt benefits to religious affiliation. A strong community, sense of purpose, and feeling of being part of something greater – these are all innate human desires. But satisfying these desires with religion comes at a cost of dangerous irrationality, alienation, and bigotry, not to mention the lost time spent worshipping a nonexistent deity and suffering unnecessarily by avoiding happiness in this life for some greater reward in an exceedingly unlikely afterlife.

Suppose the Bible claimed the faithful could fly – how many dead Christians would have been enough evidence for surviving believers to quickly claim that it was yet another part of the book that is “metaphorical” and not literally true? That we have no way to test if there really is an afterlife is the only reason Christians still believe this part of the Bible is still literally true.

Suppose there is an afterlife? What testable claims would such a proposition have?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.