Today’s Church Experience

Today I attended Sunday morning services with four other atheists from the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Louisville. For an explanation of what we were doing in a church, see my post immediately before this one: I am going to church tomorrow and here’s why. If you haven’t read that one yet, I recommend it for the back story before you continue with this post.

The church we attended was Walnut Street Baptist Church in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The service was very typical of my experiences both growing up in the Church of the Nazarene and in visiting Baptist churches when I was looking for something different. The sizable sanctuary was well filled with mostly white  but also a scattering of black middle-class families, mostly dressed in casual and semi-dressy clothes. As far as looks go, our group fit right in. No one would have known we were not typical church-goers unless they recognized us or heard our post-service conversation.

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This is the view from where we were sitting. This photo was taken while the choir was singing.

The order of the service was as I expected, except that the taking of the offering happened at the end just before the benediction, and not right after the congregational singing. Otherwise the service was pretty much identical to the ones I had grown up in. The call to worship (the opening song) was “Because of Who You Are,” and it felt surreal to me to sit and listen to it because I used to be incredibly moved by that song but now I was just rather bored and waiting for it to end. I thought the same of most of the song service, which was a mix of contemporary songs and hymns. The one song that I enjoyed was “It is Well With My Soul.” It is a pretty song and was always one of my favorites. It started out with a trumpet solo and then the congregation joined in and I sang as well. It was the best part of the entire service.

The sermon was about worry and anxiety, and drew from Matthew 6:25-34. It started with an anecdote about distraction, namely the distraction of the pastor himself when he was a young child on a baseball team. As we all know, very young children are very distractible. He transitions into the rest of the sermon by saying the things that distract Christians the most from following Jesus are worry and anxiety. Without reproducing the entire sermon, which was fairly well organized with three sets of three points each, I’ll jump straight to the main point. According to this sermon, anxiety is experienced by Christians who forget to keep their focus on Jesus and instead worry about making preparations for their future. The point of the passage is that we should not worry about what will happen tomorrow or what we will eat or wear, since God will take care of all that. And Jesus is good and doesn’t want us to be anxious. Given that everyone in that congregation looked pretty well fed and clothed, I doubt that this pastor was making points about basic sustenance (like Jesus was) as much as about desiring the best clothes or the best food–things not necessary for survival and a basic level of sustenance and personal security.  I assume that at least the adults in the congregation are not so naïve as to think that they should not therefore store up provisions for the future for themselves and their children. After all, even the bird of the air starve to death when there is a drought or overpopulation or other such misfortune. In part because, as the Bible says, they don’t store up in barns. Perhaps we should be more like the squirrels of the trees than the birds of the air…but now I am getting off topic.

The part of the sermon that bothered me the most was the pastor’s response to the obvious objection to his message: What about when God is NOT providing for me what I need? After all, there are a lot of starving people in the world, and some of them are Christians. Here is his answer: “God will provide what is sufficient to do what he wants us to do.” In other words, if you are praying and begging and not getting what you need, it’s all part of God’s plan. He will reward you in the afterlife. Oh, also “your definition of good is not the same as God’s.” Well then. Stop complaining and trust the one who is invisible and inaudible. Just don’t worry.

I was also disappointed to not hear him mention the real things that any person, Christian or not, can do to help deal with anxiety: taking to friends, journaling/blogging, not procrastinating, avoiding negative thinking, and even seeing a therapist and taking medication in extreme cases. If all you knew about anxiety and its causes came from this sermon, the take away message would be that the reason you are anxious because you do not have enough faith in Jesus. It’s long been my problem with preachers that they are very good at times at pointing out real problems, but their advice usually misses the mark by so much that it would be laughable if it was not so sad. I always got frustrated with sermons because I have expected them to give a rational and persuasive case, but most church sermons are not persuasive speeches. You just either just believe what the pastor says, or you don’t.

It was an interesting experience to see church though the eyes of a total nonbeliever, as an open atheist. As expected the people were precious and I would have no problem associating with any of them. But (most of the) music and the doctrine and sermons are clearly not for me. But I don’t mind attending to raise money for a worthy cause. :)

Don’t need God to tell us what is good

“How do you know what is good without God?”

This is a question that one of the visitors to the Louisville Atheists booth at the Ky State Fair asked me after he read our banner slogan “Millions are good without God!” It was not hard for me to come up with a quick answer. “We define ‘good’ in human terms. We don’t need a God to tell us what is good.”

I’d like to expand on that answer a bit. After spending 10+ years as an atheist, it still shocks me a bit that some religious people seem to think we require supernatural revelation to tell us what is good.  When you eat a delicious and satisfying meal, do you need someone to tell you that it is good? When you feel wonderful about yourself after helping someone in need, do you need someone to tell you that your action was good? If you are angry and lash out at another person in your anger, do you need supernatural revelation to tell you that your action was not good?

I think not, and it doesn’t matter if you believe in any gods or not. We know that there are certain things and actions that bring love, and happiness, and fulfillment, and we call these things “good.” Others bring fear, and hate, and disgust, and we call these things “bad.” A large number of things and actions bring a bit of both good and bad into the world, and there we need to made a judgement call on whether the good is worth the bad.

During my conversation with this state fair visitor, I asked him if he saw any problem in the bad things in the Bible that God reportedly commanded. In particular, about the genocides described against the Amalekites and other “pagans” that God commanded the Israelites to destroy. His answer was the usual “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” and I think this simple yet mind-boggling phrase highlights what Christians means when they say we cannot know what is good without God’s help. Everyone knows that delicious food, funny jokes, and helpful actions are good, but what about all those things we would never guess could be good expect by divine revelation?

Things like:

  • Genocide (1 Samuel 15)
  • Sexism (1 Corinthians 11:7-12)
  • Homophobia (Romans 1:18-32)
  • Blood Sacrifice (recurring theme, specific examples probably not needed)
  • Substitutionary atonement, or the punishment of an innocent victim to pay for the wrongdoings of the guilty. (See also: scapegoating). This is the theological principle underlying the Christian notion that Jesus “died for our sins.”
  • Hell (need I say more?)

Even today, on the fringes of Christianity, there are parents who sincerely believe it is bad to take their sick child to the doctor, and good to beat their child for disobeying them.

There are things that under normal circumstances, any reasonably intelligent and honest person would see as harmful and bad. However, when it is presented to a person as part of their inherited or chosen religious tradition, that person will absolutely bend over backwards to justify these things and make them “good.” After all, God’s ways are higher, right?

So, we don’t need a God or any authority outside our own minds (individually or collectively) to tell us what is good, unless there is some motivation to present things that are really bad as good.

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Why I am An Atheist: Science is better than Faith

Since I am recently talking about The God Virus, it bears mention that religion is not the only viral idea out there. In my youngest years the “god virus” (to use the metaphor) was not the only viral idea I was exposed to. I was also infected at a young age with a high regard and respect for science and for logic. For a long time I thought these two ideas, the religious idea and the scientific and logical idea, were in no conflict with each other because, naturally, Truth cannot contradict truth.

Throughout my life I have been driven by the search for answers. Not just any answers, but answers that make sense, answers that I can understand well enough that I can competently explain and defend to another person. According to the evangelical religious tradition in which I was raised, it was my duty to “witness” to anyone that I could to bring them into the fold of Christianity so that they would be saved. But I had a problem….even at the point when I most deeply believed, when I tried to speak the ideas out loud I felt a conflict, like there was something unfathomable that was just not right. I didn’t really understand this thing that I was trying to convince others to believe, and I could just imagine all the ways in which a non-believer could shoot down every argument I had in my arsenal. This bothered me immensely. I had to resort to just parroting what others had told me, or just skip the theology completely and just invite my target to come to church with me. My lacking witnessing skills guilted me tremendously, and I prayed fervently that God would grant me boldness and tell me what to say.

So, in my search for sensible answers, I dug into apologetics books by authors like C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, and Max Lucado. Without going into the details of each one, I found the following pattern nearly every time: I would read the book and it would bolster my faith and make me feel good about what I believed. Then, a week or two later the doubts and uncertainties would creep in again and I would read another apologetics book and feel good again…then go back to doubting again in about a week. I ran to the apologists and gobbled up their encouraging words, but didn’t really examine the arguments they were using. I so wanted to believe their conclusions that I didn’t really care if their arguments made sense or not. So when I tried to explain to myself what I had learned from them later I remembered the conclusions and good feelings, but still couldn’t reconstruct the arguments behind the conclusions. So back into doubt I would slide. After several cycles of this I started to get really frustrated. 

Little did I realize, I had two conflicting viruses vying for dominance in my mind. I wanted verifiable, scientific, logical answers and I just was not getting what I needed from the previously mentioned apologists. Then I got into creationist literature, including my heavily anti-evolution home-school biology text, and thought for a while that I found what I needed. That science really did support the Bible and Christianity.

I found bits of the truth about evolution and creationism later in college, with the help of Astronomy 101 which explained to me about the Big Bang, and showed me a timeline of the universe including that of life on Earth. That piqued by curiosity and lead me to read more on my own. I was furious at first and felt I had been misled on clear scientific matters by Christian authors I had trusted in the name of God. I gave up on the apologists and creationists and started perusing the science section at our small local library. That is where I found the book form of Cosmos by Carl Sagan, and River out of Eden by Richard Dawkins. And I was hooked.

Cosmos (book)

I started checking out all the books in the local library I could find on both cosmology and evolution. I would bring them home read them guiltily in my room, hiding them under the covers when my parents knocked at the door for fear of their disapproval (I was a bit paranoid perhaps?). This was my rebellion, searching outside the family religion to find my explanations in science. Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins and other science writers I discovered didn’t simply rush to a desired conclusion. They actually explained each step in the progression of their arguments in a way that I could grasp, slowly building up to the conclusion while I followed along. And it made sense, and still made sense a week later (though I usually had to go back and review.) I was actually learning new things when I read, unlike when I read the apologists, and the new understanding I found was intoxicating. The more I learned, the more my former supernatural beliefs fell away in favor of natural scientific explanations, all the way back to the origin of humanity and the origin of the universe. I could see that there were still gaps in scientific knowledge of course, but science had replaced the supernatural explanations so many times in the past. I couldn’t see any sense in posing supernatural explanations for what we didn’t know yet. To insert “God did it” anywhere in the natural world just made no sense.

The viral idea that truth cannot contradict truth lead me to embrace science and reason over faith.

Happy Darwin Day!

Answering “A Christian’s Response to Homosexuality”

From http://lifeofafemalebiblewarrior.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/a-christians-response-to-homosexuality/

There are three passages in the Old Testament (Gen. 19: 1-13; Lev 18:22; 20:13) and three in the New Testament (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; I Tim. 1:10) that have traditionally been read as prohibiting homosexuality.

In this post, I will look up each of these passages and give my own response, followed by a general conclusion at the end. Like I have made clear in my post Why I am an Atheist: Secular Morality vs. Divine Command, I do not give any credence whatsoever to Biblical authority on anything much less morality. However, given that I am interested in what Christians believe due to my early immersion in the religion, and the fact that these controversies are affecting people’s lives even today, I feel a desire to respond.

Gen. 19: 1-13: I see no prohibition about homosexuality here. Maybe only a prohibition about allowing guests who have entered your home to be gang raped by a mob. But then, Lot seems to have little scruple about sending his virgin daughters out to be raped instead (I guess he felt he would have to send out someone?) I see this not as a message to modern Christians that homosexuality is immoral, but a message to everyone today that the morality in the Bible is just plain twisted.

Lev 18:22: This is an Old Testament law against male homosexuality (it says “do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman”) though I notice it says nothing about lesbians.  Couched right between the rules against adultery and bestiality.

Lev 20:13: Essential the same as Lev 18:22, but with slightly different wording. And followed by specific instructions not to sleep with animals, see their siblings naked, or “take” their brother’s wife (Though wasn’t there a rule requiring the brother to sleep with his deceased brothers widow so the deceased brother would have an heir? I’ll have to look that up later…).

Rom. 1:26-27: Really not sure how to interpret this one. It sounds like it says God made people gay because they were degenerate sinners? I just have to quote the whole passage here… I remember this passage from Bible quizzing, but come to think about it I’m not even sure who Paul is talking about, unless it is just people who don’t believe in what he is preaching. But that doesn’t make much sense because being an unbeliever does not cause one to be attracted to members of the same sex. It sounds like just an inflammatory rant against those who didn’t believe his message. Not only are the disbelievers gay, but also they lack all natural affection, and are generally evil.

1:21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
1:22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,

1:23 And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.

1:24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:

1:25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

1:26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:

1:27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

1:28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;

1:29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,

1:30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,

1:31 Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:

1:32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

And it also seems strange that Paul would condemn homosexuality as “unnatural” when he also said that the “natural man” was evil.

1 Corinthians 2:14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10: Paul lists below those who will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (presumed to mean, these people don’t go to heaven? The phrase “kingdom of God” is not really defined very well anywhere in the Bible.)  Besides, what does it mean “effeminate”? Some people have translated this as “homosexual” but I have to wonder if this is due to their own prejudice more than what the word actually means. Perhaps an “effeminate” man doesn’t fit into the clear-cut gender roles required by Paul’s Christianity? Similarly, I don’t get what “abusers of themselves with mankind” is supposed to mean either and if this has anything to do with homosexuality or not. I’ve heard masturbation referred to as “self-abuse” but I see it as no such thing. Could Paul’s ickyness towards sex be what is really being revealed here?

6:9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,

6:10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

I Tim. 1:10: Meh, pretty much more of the same…lumping gays (I guess) in with sinners, murderers, and menstealers (??).

1:9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,

1:10 For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;

1:11 According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust.

From what I can see here, it looks like the Old Testament law prohibited homosexuality, along with other abominations like the eating of shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12) and the wearing of mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19). These laws should be irrelevant to the modern Christian since they are supposedly no longer under the Old Testament law. Or so I have heard. As for the New Testament passages (All coming from the same person in fact, assuming that letters to Timothy are not forgeries as suspected by many scholars.) I don’t see much here besides Paul’s distaste towards sex, especially when coupled with his admonition to his followers that it is better for them to be celibate and not to marry. (1 Corinthians 7)

In conclusion, regarding gay marriage, I see nothing in the Bible prohibiting it at least for modern-day Christians who are supposedly no longer “under the law” as Paul put it. I see assumptions but no declarations that marriage is between men and women. Though if you really look at the Bible, this “one man, one woman” notion is scarcely to be found. Also there is nothing saying that other sexual “sinners” like fornicators or adulterers should be restricted from marrying or doing anything else really. Regarding Paul’s libelous lumping in homosexuals with murderers, liars, and other sorts of seedy people, I only see his own prejudice and ever more reason why notions of “Biblical authority” should be tossed into the historical trash-bin of really bad ideas.

EDIT: I have been trying very hard not to edit posts after I have already published, because I always seem to think of one more thing to say after I have published. But it’s a point I have to make:

NONE of these passages that speak badly of homosexuals or lumps gayness in with murder and lying has anything to do with Jesus, or was attributed to Jesus. They were all either Old Testament passages or were written (or at least attributed) to Paul, who never met Jesus in the flesh and only made a very untestable claim to have had a vision of Jesus. 

And now I will go back to my intention to make no further edits to posts after publishing.

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Why I am an Atheist: Secular Morality vs. Divine Command

What makes an action good or bad (or neutral)? Atheists are asked by theists, quite frequently, where we get our morals. However, I think that the Biblical theist has a much harder time when it comes to morality than the atheist. This dilemma for the theist is most elequantly stated by Plato as Euthyphro’s dilemma: Is something morally good because it is commanded by God, or is it commanded by God because it is morally good? (my paraphrase. Click the linked text for further detail.) Unlike the Divine Command theory of morality, which states that moral duty comes from God’s or a god’s command regardless of how an act or belief looks in light of secular reason.

The Biblical story that is most cited in discussions about secular morality vs Divine Command morality is the one where God commands Abraham to kill his one and only son as an offering. If you are not familiar with the story, I recommended the illustrated version of The Brick Testament here: God Demands Child Sacrifice. So, if God were to tell you to kill your child, what would be the proper response? According to Divine Command theory, which is championed in the Bible, it is to not question God’s will but to do whatever it is he said. (That Isaac was spared at the end is irrelevant, because Abraham clearly fully intended to carry out the command and was considered righteous for that reason. ) According to secular morality, which is generally followed in modern cases such as that of Andrea Yates, the proper response if you think God wants you to kill your child (or anyone’s child!) is NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT! And it appears that most Christians that are put to the question actually agree with secular morality on this one.

The modern version of the Divine Command theory that I encounter most often comes from self-proclaimed “Biblical” Christians who believe in the authority of the Bible as the final say in all matters of morality. To an unbeliever like me, who does not trust the men who wrote the literature that came to be included in the Bible, nor the counsels of men who determine which of these writings would be considered as authoritative scripture, this assertion is absurd to the highest degree. However, there are plenty of people who, for whatever reasons, still consider the Bible to be a source of authority.

A recent prime example of this is found in the political debate over the issues of homosexuality and gay marriage. Conservative Christian politicians like,  every single GOP primary candidate, is pounding on this issue that homosexuality is a “sin” and that gay couple should not be allowed to marry or raise kids or adopt kids for really no reason whatsoever other than what they believe religiously. (Or, to be more accurate, what they think their voters believe religiously.) All of the studies that have been put forth to say that kids raised by homosexuals are harmed in some way have been exposed as the crap that they are, as pointed out most eloquently by  Al Franken (see Sen. Al Franken Slams Focus On The Family During DOMA Hearing and watch the video). The motivations here are purely religious and political. This is what it looks like when a “Biblical” idea of morality is put ahead of human happiness and autonomy, and above the wellbeing of kids who would otherwise be adopted into a loving home.

This example of how “Biblical” Christian morality to be out of step with modern society and rational morality is one more reason why I am now an atheist.

For further reading on the contrast between theistic moral beliefs and humanism, and a talk on why secular morality is superior to “Biblical” morality, see the links below.

American Humanist Associations Consider Humanism Campaign

Atheist Community of Austin: The Superiority of Secular Morality

Upcoming Series: Why I am an atheist.

“Why are you an atheist?”

“Why don’t you believe in God?”

I have gotten these questions before. I actually have quite a lot of reasons that I am an atheist, but I’ve found that when someone just asks me point blank I freeze up because I can’t think of where to start. Because I’m not always sure of which reason would be the most effective for the asker to understand, because I don’t usually know their background or what their concept of “god” looks like. While considering this situation, I thought maybe instead of trying to jam my reasons for being an atheist into a single post why not have a series of posts where I can address each reason one by one? So, over the course of the next few months I will be writing and posting a series of essays on the various reasons why I am an atheist.

As a preview, here are some of the reasons I am looking forward to explaining:

  • The conspicuous absence of God, and my repeated observations of God being “given the glory” for human actions and chance events.
  •  The historically dubious origins of Christian doctrines, including early church disputes about the nature of Jesus himself.
  • Moral philosophy and the “Divine Command” theory.
  • The soul: how I became convinced that mind=brain and that the idea of the soul is superfluous.
  • Sexism and injustice in the Bible (probably other holy books too, but I don’t know the other books well enough to comment on them.)
  • The constant replacement of supernatural and religious explanations with understandable scientific ones.
  • Evolution, the origins of life, and creationist lies I was told when I was young.

And this list may change during the series, as I think of other things. If any of these intrigues you, make a note in the comment section and I will try to get to that reason sooner rather than later.