An Informal Audience with Jesus

Question from Joe:
I am a believer. However I have a really hard time with most churches and Christians. I agree on 99.9% of the points people like deGrasse Tyson, Dawkins and Hitchens make. Subjects like physics, astronomy, math, biology, etc. seem to answer more and more questions that Christianity used to simply answer with “God” before and I’m totally fine with that. In fact I love it. I do not understand why it is so hard for some to accept science and faith as not competing.
My struggle with being a Christian that dislikes most Christian “stuff” has never really bothered me though since I do not base my belief in theories about a bearded man sitting on a cloud, if god can make a really heavy rock, what caused the Big Bang, etc. but rather personal revelations and spirituality. I thought I’d tell you this to let you know where I’m coming from and maybe it will have an impact on your answer.

Let’s just play with the thought that Heaven does exist. And you die one day (hopefully of old age after a long happy life) and your soul(?) gets transported to the gates of heaven and POFF! There is Jesus himself and he tells you; “Hello, you did not really recognise me during your life. For the fun of it, I’ll let you ask me three questions about anything.” What happens afterwards is not really relevant, but if you think it is, please elaborate.

What would you ask Jesus? Would you like four questions? That’s fine.

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think where you’re “coming from” will change my answer much, but thanks for sharing.

Sure, it’s possible (likely is another matter) that I’m wrong and Jesus will meet me at the gates of Heaven. That’s already outside of the commonly held belief that it’s Saint Peter who mans the gates, so let’s also suppose that Jesus is willing to indulge the curiosity of an atheist using all the knowledge of God. Given all that, what an opportunity!

I’m sure that by the end of my life there would be certain things related to me personally that I’d want to know (like what happened to some hypothetical friend who vanished, for example) but for the benefit of others I’ll keep to questions about subjects of general interest. Maybe by the end of my life I’d have different philosophical priorities as well, but if it were me as I am now and I didn’t think too hard about it, here’s how it might go.

Question 1: What’s the plan, man? Is humanity serving some function for you, why do you need us for it when you’re omnipotent, and how’s it going so far?

Question 2: Why is there evil? You must know all about the attempts at theodicy over thousands of years, so I don’t need to lay it out for you. What’s the deal?

Question 3: How did the universe begin, if it had a beginning? If you caused it, what did you actually do and to what? Has its structure and nature since the start been entirely emergent or have you needed to intervene in cosmically large ways to get whatever you needed out of it?

Question 4 (if Jesus allows it): How about you yourself? How much of the Gospels is accurate regarding your life, death and resurrection? Why’d you make it all happen in that particular time and place, and only once? Why at all, for that matter?

Oh, Hell

Question from Jeannette:
Hell-o. So, if you have any information or proof on why Hell couldn’t exist could you share it with me? I have been a Christian my whole life and now I am really seeing the logic of atheism.

My husband is a Baptist minister. So this is difficult. But my main issue is that I would like to put the issue of whether or not there is a Hell to rest.

The only reason I would teach my children about Christianity is because I am terrified of them possibly going to hell. So I feel like the most compassionate thing for me to do is to research this and hopefully find that there is no hell and share it with them when the time is right.

Thanks!

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re taking the hardest route by looking for proof that Hell doesn’t exist, just like those looking for proof that God doesn’t exist. It’s impossible to do without exhausting possibilities you could only test if you were omniscient yourself. If you establish that Hell can’t exist physically for some reason related to thermodynamics, for example, theologians (both professional and armchair) will insist that it exists outside of the physical, or in a different physical realm where the rules are different. When all that is “known” about a place is merely asserted, the assertions can easily change to get around any objections.

Fortunately the burden is not really on you to prove it doesn’t exist, because there’s no evidence that it does exist. It’s merely a claim by several different religions (which each describe its qualities, and importantly the criteria for being sent there, very differently) which is supported only by mentions in Scripture. Even that isn’t conclusive – some theologians argue that the Bible doesn’t establish it at all. Here’s an article with the major Bible-based reasons to dispute the existence of Hell, which even if they’re not conclusive to believers at least demonstrate that it’s not simply a believers-versus-heathens issue.

Regarding you personally, there’s not much to worry about if you’re seeing that atheism has a point. Hell, as described by Christianity, exists directly because of God, and if God isn’t looking likely then neither is Hell.

That said, if you think there’s a possibility of you or the people you love going to Hell, I know it’s terrifying. This terror is such that it sticks with people long after their belief in God, Hell or anything related has faded. (I call it “faithdrawal”.) But even if there is a Hell there’s no point frantically trying to stay out of it because there’s no way to do so with any confidence. If you follow any specific Christian denomination (e.g. Baptism) then there are dozens of others that think you’re going to Hell for not following theirs. If you’re Christian at all, the Muslims think you’re going to Hell, and vice versa. And if you’re atheist, of course, then there are people of most faiths who think you’re Hell-bound regardless of the life you’ve led. In that situation though, taking up any religion is less likely to get you condemned by the “right” religion than saved by it, just because there are so many and you’re so unlikely to pick the true one (if any).

Your children are going to hear about Hell from your husband or his congregation, no question. If they comprehend it and they believe it then they will be frightened by it, no question. If you so much as tell them once that you disbelieve, or even doubt, then it will no longer be a certainty in their minds. My father’s an atheist and he told me so a grand total of twice, and was quiet the rest of the time while my mother talked as if God was beyond doubt. The fact that someone I respected disagreed with the doctrine was all it took for me to realise there was something to investigate. The sooner your children see Hell as an academic argument, the less they’ll be impacted on an emotional level. (If you don’t want to reveal your own disbelief because of your husband, maybe mention someone else you know who doubts it.)

If they do end up taking it to heart, at least it’s a trauma they’ll share with millions of others. Like the fear of death, it lessens after the initial shock of discovery until it’s hardly thought of at all. You really have to obsess over something like that to maintain that horrible initial feeling. So if you can’t combat it directly, just distract as best you can and let them get back to being kids.

Christianity vs Science

Question from Moonrunez:
Yo, talk about cover ups and denying bull, I have been trying to find books that list how Christianity killed and abused science, the study thereof, the torture and death of people studying science, and all I get is how Christianity started science, really, who was Hypatia? N.american Indians practised Tesla mathematics thousands of years before Tesla, look at the serpent mound, or the astro-mathematics of Chaco canyon, not one ounce of land has been gained in N. or S.america except by killing American Indians for practicing witchcraft. this was commonly done to get land, Christians from pagans, Christians from Christians, no one seems to know that one half the town of Salem was accused of witchcraft, the ones who admitted as much lost all there land to the other Christians, why? Why the bullshit, or how Christianity is the cause of extinction and justification for animal abuse and scientific study, animals don`t have souls, Black Beauty was written by a man who witnessed the abuse of animals in his time and wrote about it, and I conclude do you know why I have the right to face my accuser, because in the witch burning times you could accuse your neighbor of heresy have them killed, via torture first to get land, that is why the constitution has this, I can`t find a single book listing groups of scientists, and the types of science destroyed, all I find is Christian websites stating they created science, those idiot Egyptians never built pyramids, had math, science, knew the world was round, star charts, physics, medicine, herb lore, surgery, writing, read 42 laws of Mayet! Can you recommend books that tell the truth of how science etc. was held back by Christianity, thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, Christians appear to have a lot of material for arguing that Christianity was responsible for the rise of science because so many of the great scientists were Christians. Where the argument stumbles is in establishing that their Christianity actually helped in their work, rather than that they were simply great scientists who, like nearly everyone else in those times and places, happened to be Christian. People like Hypatia, who was a fourth century Egyptian pagan scholar, demonstrate that plenty of good work was going on outside of “Christendom”.

Anyway, the persecution of individual scientists isn’t good material for a lot of books because there aren’t many well-known cases. There’s Galileo, of course, and in very much the same category there’s Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake for claiming there were planets outside the solar system (possibly with life on them). William Buckland, Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz, and Adam Sedgewick set out to investigate the Biblical flood, but ended up dispelling their own beliefs in it and brought condemnation upon themselves from the Church. Feel free to add more, folks, but that about does it for the famous ones.

It’s worth being very specific about the measurable effect Christianity has had on science, rather than simply saying that it held it back. For as long as Christianity has seen itself as a political power in the world, it has encouraged technological advances to keep itself powerful. Strong armies, good medicines and so on were extremely important.

The issue is that Christianity contains a number of doctrines (claims, if you like) which we now know contradict the scientific evidence and have been accepted by the majority as simply false. Special creation of each plant and animal is a big one, but there’s also the idea that the Earth or the Sun is the centre of the universe, that diseases are caused by demons instead of germs and that stars are small enough to be capable of “falling from the sky” onto the Earth. Some of these are claimed outright by the Bible, others were added later by popes and other authorities. Once the reality became clear in each case, even if the scientific community accepted it, majority Christian populations were very slow to adopt the new thinking because it contradicted something that was supposedly sacred. This wasn’t enough to stop the science from advancing, but it sure slowed it down. Scientists need funding and freedom, and the religious tend to be in positions where they can allow or deny both.

And now a little surprise: I didn’t say there weren’t any books at all. In 1896, Andrew Dickson White wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, summarising every conflict he could find. That link is to the entire book, hosted at the University of Michigan. It’s been derided by theologians and accommodationists as propaganda, but whatever you think of it you can’t deny that it’s all there.

The Benefits of Irrationality?

Question from Ariel:
Hello,

I am interested in your perspective as an atheist on a few things. I am not an atheist, nor am I a theist. I am certainly not an agnostic. As a bit of background: I grew up in an entirely atheistic, secular environment and have only begun exploring religious and spiritual traditions recently. I believe that within all mainstream belief structures that I’ve thus far encountered (predominantly atheist and Christian branches), there arises at some point or another – in some structures it is more hidden and deeply buried than in others – some sort of intellectual dishonesty. In most Christian traditions this dishonesty manifests in a relatively evident form of cognitive dissonance. Obviously very few Christians fully cognize the implications of their beliefs or else they would not be able to function in our pluralistic society. To honestly believe that 3/4 of the people I encounter are going to be punished eternally would put a strain on my existence that would become unbearable. The dishonesty I feel I encounter with atheism is that it cannot provide an answer for the qualitative aspects of our human experience. Answers to questions of beauty, morality, meaning, etc cannot be answered within a materialistic paradigm. Science deals with quantifiable evidence in a horizontal plane of existence while religion deals with qualitative evidence in a vertical plane of existence. It’s been often stated that science deals with the How while religion deals with the Why.

Of course that’s not entirely true. Science can begin to explain Why a particular organism behaves in a certain way by referring to various hypotheses within evolutionary science or psychology or what have you. But any answer to a why in a strictly causal, materialistic paradigm leads to another why, and you end up with an infinite regression. The big questions remain mysteries. When a religious person asks: how does your life have meaning without a God? What do you base your morality on? – those are very valid questions, as much as skeptics seem to want to scoff at them. The answers that often arise are answers of common sense: you make your own meaning, of course! You are moral by treating others kindly and valuing their lives, of course! But none of these answers warrant ‘of course’s.

The way that I see it, atheists have internalized the moral foundations that have been developed in religious traditions and have secularized them without realizing that, in removing ‘God’ from the equation, the ‘foundation’ part of ‘moral foundation’ is eliminated. I believe it might be worth studying / engaging in religious traditions, as well as poetry, speculative philosophy, etc for hints at some sort of higher truth than cannot be captured by adamant rationalism. There is a hugely mysterious aspect to our human experience that should not be suppressed by strict adherence to a particular *method* of thinking, like rationalism, logic, empiricism, the scientific method. These are just that: methods. They are particular closed systems in which we have trained our brains to think according to established rules and patterns. The thing about the aforementioned disciplines of speculative philosophy, religion / theology, poetry and arts in general is that they may, in their most honest and non-dogmatic manifestations, experience a high level cognitive freedom that allows them to delve into the vertical plane of existence. It is in this freedom that we may learn to take the leaps of faith that provide us with the ‘meaning’ that we so desperately crave as human beings. Paul Tillich suggested that with the modern emphasis on rationalism, there has been a removal of ‘depth’ from our experiences. That’s why you see so many people falling victim to consumerism or substance abuse. We are trying to kill an eternal God and substitute him with fleeting things, and it’s not leaving us very fulfilled. It is actually also this rise of rationalism / atheism that has led religions to become as literalized as they are (think about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy established in the early 20th century). Religion feels that it has to move from the vertical to the horizontal in order to duke it out with science, which is why we are now seeing a much more explicit divide between atheist-theism than we may ever have seen in the past.

Anyway. I probably ranted. I am wondering whether you feel there is any space for non-rational thought and belief structures in the ideal future that you envision for humanity.

All the best.

Answer by SmartLX:
Hi Ariel.

Science and the associated rational way of thinking does not presume to have all the answers. This is a major difference from religious thinking, which does presume that the ultimate answer to every question is God. This becomes problematic when the questions themselves start to involve God, because it’s difficult for a thing to explain itself. More importantly, a believer can assert knowledge of an ultimate answer and therefore have an answer for everything, but what is the value of an answer if you don’t know whether it’s right?

While the “big questions” remain a mystery, science provides reliable answers for many of the “smaller” questions with practical applications for our daily lives. Because we know the rate at which the flu virus is evolving, we know how often a new flu vaccine must be created and distributed to ensure reasonable coverage (roughly every year). Because electricity applied to a magnetic coil in the right way can cause it to rotate, motors function. Because human beings have near-universal natural instincts towards not only self-preservation but living in social groups, we can develop laws and social contracts that will benefit us all. Meanwhile we keep working on the things we don’t know, so that we might actually discover the facts. (Incidentally, if you search this site for blanket terms like “morality” you’ll find that we’ve done far more than scoff at such questions.)

Rather than atheism secularising religious moral foundations, religions have claimed credit for ethical norms that existed long before they did; atheists simply tend to be the ones to point this out. For instance, the Commandment not to kill from the Book of Exodus was preceded by many entirely secular laws against killing, devised separately by civilisations the world over.

You can philosophise and go as “deep” as you like into any aspect of religion, but as soon as you take as a premise anything for which you have no evidence is true, you are in the realm of the hypothetical. You may experience profound realisations about your chosen topic, but as they may rely on false premises they are built on sand, and it may not be possible to translate your progress into anything which will be of practical help to anyone. This is the main problem with theology, from a non-believer’s perspective. Religion is often touted as another “way of knowing” besides science, but what is it that we “know” exclusively through religion that we actually do know? Comment if you have an example.

If I had to try to boil all of this down, I would return to my first point and say that while science cannot answer everything, religion has no more authority to answer anything and yet does it anyway. Which one you rely on for your worldview depends on whether you care more about having all the answers or being justifiably confident that the answers you have are correct.

Finally, there had better be room for non-rational thoughts and beliefs in the future, because no matter how hard people try to be rational they will always fall short at times. We’re all human, and no one’s always entirely rational. Fortunately, leaps of reasoning can indeed be achieved by taking seemingly illogical or irrational steps, though only if logic and rational analysis are applied to them afterwards. New ideas can come from anywhere, but you have to sift through them once you get them.

You Down With O.T.G?

Question from Joseph:
Hey, I’m an undergrad at a Christian college and my major is Biblical studies. I was raised an evangelical Christian but have been an agnostic for about a year now.

I have a lot of respect for the Bible and think it is under-studied and under-appreciated by atheists.

Anyways, here is one question I’ve thought about. If the OT prophets were misinformed and delivered messages from a figment of their imagination, then why were their messages so self-critical of their people and generally doom-and-gloom messages? You would think if someone wanted to imagine a God, they would make him a lot more compassionate and less vengeful and jealous. Also, where the heck did they actually get their oracles from? Most people don’t discourse with their imaginations to the point of writing out lengthy books about them. The prophets also performed object lessons to demonstrate God’s messages. For example, Ezekiel laid on his side for over a year!

The prophets also predicted a lot of events (usually vague, but still…) that came true. I wonder if this is the same type of trick that fortune tellers use, where they give a vague answer that will inevitably be manifested at some point in time, while those with a confirmation bias will end up being convinced of divine foreknowledge. But some of the prophecies were quite specific…where did the prophets come up with these?

Answer by SmartLX:
To address a couple of things very quickly:
– The Bible is classical literature, certainly. Like all classical literature it’s underappreciated as such in today’s world, and not just by atheists. That said, given that atheists reject the central claims of the Bible, they’re not usually motivated to delve into the nitty-gritty. See my piece on theology.
– Someone advocating the fulfilment of a prophecy wants you to consider only two possibilities: that it was pure coincidence and an impossibly lucky guess, or it was genuine divinely bestowed foreknowledge. There are many other possibilities, some of which I’ve named and numbered in my earlier piece on prophecies.

Now as for the character of God in the Old Testament, let’s continue to assume that the stories were made up, as you posit, for the sake of argument. God does not have a likeable personality because the purpose of the stories is clearly not to make people feel good. (There’d be a lot less genocide in it if that were the case, for one thing.) The purpose of the stories is to inspire awe and fear of God, to influence people’s behaviour as per the Commandments (not just the Ten, either) and to drive people to spread the Word. Like in any narrative, the characters need to be what they are for the author to deliver his or her message, not just for their own sake.

You do get the impression that people did some extraordinary things to receive their messages from God and to get the books written, but that doesn’t really speak for their veracity. Some of their actions, like Ezekiel’s marathon reclining session, could be exaggerated accounts themselves – or even if they’re genuine they could have degraded these people’s mental states to the point where they heard from the God of their day without any real divine communication at all.

We’ll never really know what happened to people like Ezekiel, but an extraordinary story hardly warrants jumping straight to a specific supernatural explanation.

God’s Plan for the Multiverse?

Question from Devilush:
I am a devout Atheist. I enjoy documentaries, I recently watched one on PBS Nova and they were talking about a subject I know a little about, alternate universes. This made me think about the theist argument I always hear…god’s divine plan. To me it makes a strong argument that every choice is possible, therefore it is god’s plan because he does not make mistakes. So whatever we think is choice is in reality his plan because every choice is possible…personally I need measured evidence of [I think Devilush was possibly cut off there]

Answer by SmartLX:
If every choice is possible, and has happened in some universe or other, then every possible wrong choice has been made. Yes, there would be at least one universe where everything has always gone perfectly according to God’s supposed plan (maybe more, if nothing stops universes from being identical) but the larger multiverse would be littered with universes that had fallen by the wayside.

Crediting God for the one universe He got right would be like calling someone a good marksman for peppering the area around the target with stray bullets until one happened to hit the bullseye (close to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, but really just simple confirmation bias). It would also be completely undeserved, because in a multiverse where everything happens somewhere, it’s a mathematical certainty that any given plan will be matched perfectly and God doesn’t actually need to do anything. So much for all-powerful. If He created the whole system in the first place, good for Him, but that makes him a deistic god, not the kind of interventionist theistic god the theists you’ve heard this from actually worship.

Of course this is all assuming there’s a god at all, which brings it into the area of theology and out of the area of consideration which is useful to atheists, except when they’re conversing with believers.