Reactions to Conversations with God

“The responsible thing to do, and in a way the brave thing to do, is to teach children to think critically.”

Question from Jeff:
I got the following message from a kind, caring, ignorant xian:


“If you have children or grandchildren , work with children at church , or you have neighborhood children whose parents you know , please take note of the information below and pass it along to others. Schools are distributing this
Book to children through the Scholastic Book Club.

“The name of the book is Conversations with God.. James Dobson talked about this book twice this week. It is devastating. Parents , churches and Christian schools need to be aware of it. Please pass this information on to
Church/e-mail addresses , Parents , Grandparents , Aunts , Uncles , Cousins , friends.

“Please pay special attention not only to what your kids watch on TV , in movie theaters , on the Internet , and the music they listen to , but also be alert regarding the books they read.

“Two particular books are , Conversations with God and Conversations with God for Teens , written by Neale D. Walsch. They sound harmless enough by their titles alone. The books have been on the New York Times best sellers list for a number of weeks , and they make truth of the statement , “Don’t judge a book by its cover or title.”

“The author purports to answer various questions asked by kids using the “voice of God”. However , the “answers” that he gives are not Bible-based and go against the very infallible word of God. For instance (and I paraphrase) ,
When a girl asks the question “Why am I a lesbian?” His answer is that she was ‘born that way’ because of genetics (just as you were born right-handed , with brown eyes , etc.). Then he tells her to go out and “celebrate” her differences.

“Another girl poses the question “I am living with my boyfriend. My parents say that I should marry him because I am living in sin. Should I marry him?”

“His reply is , “Who are you sinning against? Not me , because you have done nothing wrong.”

“Another question asks about God’s forgiveness of sin. His reply “I do not forgive anyone because there is nothing to forgive. There is no such thing as right or wrong and that is what I have been trying to tell everyone , do not judge people. People have chosen to judge one another and this is wrong , because the rule is “‘judge not lest ye be judged.”

“Not only are these books the false doctrine of the devil , but in some instances quote (in error) the Word of God.

“And the list goes on. These books (and others like it) are being sold to schoolchildren through (The Scholastic Book Club) , and we need to be aware of what is being fed to our children.

“The children of our nation are under attack. So I pray that you be sober and vigilant about teaching your children the Word of God , and guarding their exposure to worldly mediums , because our adversary , the devil , roams about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). We know that lions usually hunt for the slowest , weakest and YOUNGEST of its prey.
Pass this on to every Believer you know.. And , if you are in doubt , check out the books yourself.”

It seems to me that these folks have a clear purpose to indoctrinate children into their way of thinking. Is there any counter to this kind of vile filth? These outmoded ideas (faiths) seem to want to keep women in their place, keep minorities on the ragged edge of society, and perpetuate their particular brand of bigotry far into the future by foisting it upon the young. Is there any way to stop this kind of thing? Is there something I could get involved in to help?

Not having read the book, I wonder whether the passages from it are directly quoted or misleadingly paraphrased. (“There is no such thing as right and wrong” is not something I’ve heard from a Christian before.) If the latter is the case, one response might be to write the author and publisher and let them know of a dishonest campaign against the book, in which case they can take their own measures.

This message will only be acted upon by people who already agree with the sentiments of the boy crying wolf, and in all likelihood already try to shield the children in their care from anything which conflicts with their accepted dogma. Therefore whether it reaches its targets won’t make a lot of difference to people’s lives by itself.

It is of course a symptom of larger problem, the widespread childhood indoctrination you talk about. Especially in these days of rising secularism, the religious often latch onto the most effective way of propagating their religions: instill them in those without much capacity to question them.

We all share the responsibility of teaching the children around us, and preparing them for life. Counter-indoctrination (of which Conversations with God sounds like a good example) isn’t the answer to those who abuse this responsibility for their own religious (or political, or social) ends. Firstly it’s little better than the zealots’ practices, and secondly why would you produce people who share your position only superficially and can’t properly explain why?

The responsible thing to do, and in a way the brave thing to do, is to teach children to think critically. Not to reject anything that’s said to them, mind you, but to consider things before they accept them. It’s brave because if they take it on board, it means they’ll question you as well as others, and you’ll have to defend your own positions. If you think yours are more defensible than those which you oppose, it’s something you need to do.

How to teach children to think critically is a different pickle for everyone. I don’t know what your background is or what access you have to children, and whose children they are. It could be something as simple as recommending that they read certain books, or as unobtrusive as discussing everyday problems around them, or as straightforward as sending them to Camp Quest.

Let us know if there’s anything you work out you can do to help kids think for themselves. Anybody else is welcome to comment with suggestions, too. You might inspire each other.

What do I do, personally? I write for a site where those who are nursing their first real doubts about religion OR atheism often come to sort things out. I try to nurture independent thought as soon as it emerges.


Logic and Certainty

“I proceed with confidence in consistent logic on the basis of experience and precedent.”

Question from Dan, apparently paraphrased from his own blog (I added the numbers for easy reference):
1. How do you account for the universal, abstract, invariant laws of logic,
2. on what basis do you proceed with the assumption that they will not change, and
3. how is it possible to know anything for certain according to YOUR worldview?

Before I start, atheism is not my worldview. It’s my position on a specific issue, and it has very little to do with how I view anything else.

1. I cannot account for the laws of logic, yet, and neither can you. You as a Christian have been supplied with an answer to this tremendous mystery whereas I have not, but you have no substantive evidence to support or verify your answer. Its power to explain anything satisfactorily is therefore extremely limited. If you think you do have evidence, please present it or link to it.

2. I proceed with confidence in consistent logic on the basis of experience and precedent. I expect the laws of logic not to change because they have apparently never changed. All my life, and as far back as I’ve delved into history, there isn’t a single confirmed instance when the laws of logic changed. (Contrast that with the Christian idea that God temporarily circumvents these laws to cause miracles.)

If the laws do suddenly change at some point in my lifetime I will be mighty surprised (as will those who think a god is keeping them constant) but I do not expect this to happen and I live as if it won’t. Chances are, I’ll be right.

3. Knowing things for certain depends on just how certain you want to be. Since I can’t be absolutely certain this life is not merely a dream, for example, I can’t be any more certain about a single specific aspect of my life as it’s all potentially within that dream.

Once I have enough evidence of something, for example that my fiancee both exists and loves me, I develop a certain confidence that it is true. In the given case I am so confident that I will happily say in everyday life that I am certain.

Sure, there is a possibility that my fiancee is putting on an act, or that she is my schizophrenic delusion, or again that my whole life since meeting her was a dream. I simply think the probability of any of these scenarios is so low that it’s negligible. If I’m wrong and one of them is the case, I will be heartbroken and again very surprised, and that will be that.

I do not pursue absolute certainty in anything, because I don’t think it’s attainable. I don’t need it, because in most matters I can attain a level of confidence where I can happily act as if I am certain. Sometimes I’m wrong. It happens.


“God’s Pharmacy”

Coincidences happen, and we notice them. Next to the infinite coincidences that do not happen, and we therefore don’t usually consider, they are often insignificant.

Original material:
(From a popular chain email, recently made into a PDF, possibly copyrighted in 2008 by one Ed Bagley and therefore reproduced here under Fair Use for purposes of analysis)

“The next time you sit down to lunch or dinner, you may be surprised to learn that many of the foods that we eat look similar to vital organs in our body, and in fact provide nutrients that actually help the organ in question function. Upon learning the specifics of this interesting fact, you just may ponder about whether this phenomena is a happy coincidence or a planned occurrence.

“Here are the facts: A sliced carrot looks like our human eye. The pupil, iris and radiating lines look just like our human eye, and science shows carrots greatly enhance blood flow to our eyes and the function of our eyes. A tomato has four chambers and is red. Our heart has four chambers and is red. Research shows tomatoes are loaded with lycopene—a red carotenoid pigment present in tomatoes and many berries and fruits—and are indeed pure heart and blood food. Grapes hang in a cluster that has the shape of our heart. Each grape looks like a blood cell and research shows grapes are also profound heart and blood vitalizing food. A walnut looks like a little brain with a left and right hemisphere, similar to our upper cerebrum and lower cerebellum. Even the wrinkles (folds) on the nut are just like our neo-cortex. We know that walnuts help develop more than 30 neurotransmitters for our brain function, allowing a chemical substance to help fibers in our brain communicate with each other.

“Kidney beans look like our human kidneys, and actually heal and help maintain our kidney function. Celery, bok choy and rhubarb look like our bones. These foods specifically target bone strength. Bones are 23% sodium (salt) and these foods are 23% sodium. If you do not have enough sodium in your diet, the body pulls it from the bones, thus making them weak. These foods replenish the skeletal needs of our body.

“Avocados, eggplant and pears target the health and function of the womb and cervix of the female—they even look like these organs. Research shows that when a woman eats one avocado a week, it balances hormones, sheds unwanted birth weight, and prevents cervical cancers. It also takes 9 months to grow an avocado from blossom to ripened fruit. There are apparently more than 14,000 photolytic chemical constituents of nutrition in each one of these foods; modern science has only studied and named about 141 of these. Figs are full of seeds and hang in twos when they grow. Figs increase the mobility of male sperm, increase the number of sperm, and can help overcome male sterility. Sweet potatoes look like the pancreas and actually balance the glycemic index of diabetics. Olives assist the health and function of the female ovaries. Oranges, grapefruits, and other citrus fruits look like the mammary glands of the female, and actually assist the health of the breasts and the movement of lymph in and out of the breasts.

“Onions look like our body cells. Research shows that onions help clear waste materials from our body cells. As we have found out, onions even produce tears that wash the epithelial (outer) layers of our eyes. A working companion, garlic, also helps eliminate waste materials and dangerous free radicals from our body.”

In the case of the PDF, it jumps straight from the last one to Psalms 46:19.

I’ve unearthed this piece from the remains of the old site as it seems to have been the only visible online response to the “God’s Pharmacy” email.

Immediate issues with the specifics:
– Even the most common variety of tomato has between three and five chambers, not just four. Other breeds have between two and ten.
– You have to cut a carrot to even make one side of it look like a picture of an eye, and even then it’s a creepy orange eye. Once you’re shaping these foods yourself like this, their natural appearance is irrelevant.
– Carotene gives tomatoes and carrots their health benefits and their colour. If God’s trying to draw us to healthy foods by making them red or reddish, why are most poisonous berries the same colour?
– Blood cells aren’t round like grapes, they’re flattened and pitted like a Strepsils tablet.
– The stalks of celery, bok choy and rhubarb can look like the long, thin bones in our arms and legs. That’s just 12 out of the 206 bones of all shapes and sizes in the human body.
– Who decided that garlic is a “working companion” to onions, and how does the appearance of onions link to the benefits of garlic?

What makes me suspicious about these claims, beyond the inaccuracies above, is the recurring non-references to scientific research: “science shows…”, “research shows…”, “we know that…” and so on. No links to any actual work done by anybody. Though much of what’s said is likely correct, we’re expected to believe it from this email alone.

The real problem here is naked confirmation bias. Every one of these foods has a long list of benefits all over the body (the kidney bean, for instance, could sustain you all by itself for ages), and every body part mentioned has a multitude of foods which are good for it and yet look nothing like it. Pick the most interesting twenty out of the innumerable billions of combinations, and you’ve got an amazing list. View it in the context of the whole of the human body and the whole of the fruit and vegetable family, and it’s just an amusing highlight reel.

Coincidences happen, and we notice them. Next to the infinite coincidences that do not happen, and we therefore don’t usually consider, they are often insignificant. That’s the case with “God’s Pharmacy” here.


Misuse of “agnostic”?

At times like this it’s frustrating that we weren’t able to salvage the entire body of articles from the old version of the site. I did at least two pieces solely on this distinction.

Question from Pritchard Hotpocket:
I see a common error perpetually appear on this site. You misuse the term “agnostic” a great deal. You seem to treat agnosticism as some sort of middle ground between atheism and theism. This is incorrect. Atheism and theism are metaphysical positions of whether you believe in any deity or lack a belief in all deities. Agnosticism and gnosticism are each an epistemological position on whether you think you “know” whether a deity exists or not. So you could be a gnostic theist and believe that you “know” that a god exists or an agnostic theist and believe you don’t know whether a god exists or not but you believe in one regardless. Likewise you can be an agnostic atheist or a gnostic atheist, sometimes described as “weak” and “strong” atheists. Do you disagree with me or have you simply never been notified of the distinctions?

When was the last time we said something like that, if you don’t mind?

At times like this it’s frustrating that we weren’t able to salvage the entire body of articles from the old version of the site, because I did at least two pieces solely on this distinction.

I’ll argue with you on one point: I don’t think “agnostic” as a prefix for atheism or theism is equivalent to “weak”, or “gnostic” to “strong”. I’ll use atheism to explain: a gnostic atheist knows (or, more accurately, thinks he knows) that there are no gods, whereas a strong atheist merely believes this is true. You can be “strong” without being certain. A weak atheist is any atheist who isn’t a strong atheist, in other words someone who doesn’t positively believe in the absence of gods any more than in their presence. An agnostic atheist admits to not knowing one way or the other, but despite this could either be weak or strong by believing in absence or not. I for example am an agnostic weak atheist, though I generally just call myself an agnostic atheist because that captures most of the meaning. (And frankly, who likes to be called “weak”?)

We could also get into explicit and implicit atheism, the distinction between those who know they’re atheists and those who haven’t thought about it, but…well, I guess I just did.


Religious Wars

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a good reason for a religious war, since I think religion is a misguided premise on which to base any endeavour.

Question from John:
I was just wondering, but why are some good reasons for religious wars and what would it accomplish?

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a good reason for a religious war, since I think religion is a misguided premise on which to base any endeavour. That’s not to say that everything done in the name of religion has been worthless; the right thing may be done for the wrong reason.

Religious wars, by definition, are waged for one principal reason, good or not: the welfare of the participants’ personal religions. In practical terms this can mean forcibly converting people of other faiths, killing them outright, reclaiming artifacts and/or locations of religious significance, or conceivably, bringing about the end of the world so that certain prophecies will be fulfilled and true believers will get their ultimate rewards.

Clear-cut examples of religious wars can be hard to come by, but they do exist.

  • A series of them ravaged Europe over two centuries, mainly as a result of the Protestant Reformation.
  • The Crusades were a long series of turf wars between Christians and Muslims over the two religions’ shared designation of the “Holy Land”.
  • The current Muslim Jihad waged by extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia and so on is a struggle in the name of Allah, though no nation has yet been suicidal enough to commit itself officially. (Iran may sanction calls of “Death to America”, but it hasn’t actually declared war.)
  • Though the conflict between Jews and Muslims in Palestine and Israel may be about racial tensions and property disputes as much as religion, there are many around the world who actively hope and pray that it will escalate to the point where it fulfills an end-time prophecy in the Bible.
  • _
    There have of course been wars whose causes had little or nothing to do with religion, but that doesn’t let religion off the hook for the destruction that has indeed been done in its name.


    Login Issues

    “User information wasn’t salvaged from the old site. Even we moderators had to re-register on the new one. Just start again using one of your addresses and you’ll be fine.”

    Question from Chris:
    Hi, I had not been on for awhile and the site has since changed.

    I cannot seem to log in, nor am I able to retrieve my password (or create a new one … whichever is offered) by putting in my email address. It says no such email registered, but I put in each of the addresses I have.

    Would I just not be in the system anymore since the change?

    Thanks for your help.

    User information wasn’t salvaged from the old site, sorry. Even we moderators had to re-register on the new one. Just start from scratch using any of your existing addresses and you’ll be fine.


    “The Literal Word of God”

    Evangelists and others often claim that “the Bible is the literal Word of God”. Putting aside whether it’s true or not, what does it actually mean?

    Google the quoted phrase to find lots of instances of the claim, and also lots of rejections of it. Both sides tend to confuse two possible meanings the phrase could have, so here they are nice and separate.

    “The Bible is the literal Word of God” could mean either or both of the following:
    1. The Bible is literally the Word of God. All those words on the pages really were composed by God.
    2. The Word of God in the Bible is literal. God’s words are intended to be interpreted literally.

    Some people are nice enough to spell out that they mean one or the other. Surveys of belief usually offer option 1 explicitly (again, Google the phrase in quotes), and some participants select it. Young-earth creationists defend option 2, arguing to the hilt that Creation took place in “six literal days”.

    Option 1 is difficult to either establish or debunk, because even the most zealous Bible-thumpers will say that God wrote through the minds and hands of human “authors”. Short of going back in time and doing brain scans, we’ll never be absolutely certain that their writings weren’t the products of their own brains.

    The most common way of supporting option 1 is to argue that the Bible makes prophecies, and statements about the universe, which history and science have since confirmed. I’ve addressed this sort of thing already.

    Option 2 is a theological matter, because you have to presume the existence of a god before you wonder what it meant by something it wrote. That said, it’s extremely difficult to defend a 100% literal reading of the Bible. There are passages which, unless taken metaphorically or figuratively, are for example false even in a Biblical context (Genesis 2:17) or deadly (Proverbs 3:3).

    Most Christians reject option 2 and take some or all of the Bible as metaphor. Many more also reject option 1 and allow that the Bible is simply a book written about God, and that any perceived issues with its contents don’t reflect badly on Him. Therefore the quoted claim in my title and the confusion it creates are irrelevant to most. However, for the minority that do shout it from the rooftops (clearly, I’m a metaphor man) and those who worry about their influence or are under it, it’s important to clarify this profound statement before accepting it, rejecting it or just discussing it.


    “I don’t understand.”

    “Nice people and nasty people can be right or wrong about the same things.”

    Questions from Jaselynn:
    If you take the subject as a sign that I am a pushover, do not be fooled. It is true that I grew up in a “Christian” home…and it is also true that the home fell apart, but not because of God. Because of my father. My father molested my sister. Horrid, I know. But despite how much I tried, I could never hate him. I hate what he did, but not him. Would you have me hate my father? I don’t. I love him. I really don’t hate anybody.

    I used to be consumed by anger. You know nothing of anger unless you have felt what I have. It was like a fire burning in me at all times…just waiting for an excuse to explode. I could have killed someone once. Thank the Good Lord that I didn’t! I hated God. Everything I did was just a show. It wasn’t real. And then it changed…it was slowly…an evolution, of sorts( I mean no disrespect when I say that.)

    It started with a friend. Just one person. Someone reached out to me. Of all the people in the world Christians, Athiests, Catholics, Mormans, Hindus. And I know people of each of these religions or nonreligions as the case may be. And only one friend reached out. And she was a Christian. I know that some Christians are fake. I know that some of them are the most horrid people in the world…but that is because they don’t really Know God. But Emily was different. She actually cared. She lived it.

    What do you say about the Christians who do live differently? Do you believe they exist? I’ve met them. The real Christians give from thier heart, put others before themselves, give to the poor, and love no matter what. NO MATTER WHAT. Do you think that it is a different God? I just don’t understand how you can lump all Christians into one catigory. You get angry when we lump you laws, theorys, beliefs in one category, why do you do it to Christians.

    All we tend to say about Christians in general is that they are most likely wrong about one specific set of beliefs: those related to the truth claims of Christianity, like that a god exists and that Jesus rose from the dead. I guess that’s just one category, but it’s a very broad category.

    That doesn’t stop Christians from being kind, loving, forgiving, generous people. As you mention, neither does it guarantee that they will be thus, as some Christians simply aren’t. Nice people and nasty people can be right or wrong about the same things. So we call Christians out when they do bad or dishonest things, just as we would anyone, but we try not to generalise their character to encompass all Christians. Few generalisations apply to two billion people at once.

    Emily apparently did a great thing for you, helping you forgive your father and deal with your rage. Christianity is the tool she used to do it, though she might have used others. (For example, what would it say about human beings if the only good reason to forgive someone were because we’ve been ordered to by an authority?) The fact that it worked says little or nothing about the actual existence of the god by which her actions were inspired.

    Therefore I’m glad Emily was able to help you, and I think she’s a good person, but I still think she’s probably wrong about God nonetheless. There are good Christians just are there are good Hindus, good Muslims, good atheists and good agnostics. Simply having the wrong or right religion, if any, doesn’t say much about a person’s character.


    Faithdrawal Symptoms

    “There are things outside of religion to fill the hole you feel, despite what religions say.”

    Question from Former Believa:
    I was formerly a hard core, truly devoted, sincere believer.

    Then “pop” … awareness, englightenment….and emptiness.

    When your whole life is grounded in the belief in a supreme being, and you remove the premise of god and eternity. It changes your perspective. That’s a huge gap you’ve got all of a sudden.

    It’s heartbreaking and depressing. I feel judged and misunderstood by practically all believers and “spiritual” people.

    Where do I go from here?

    Sometimes, when people stop believing in gods, certain assumptions related to their former belief stay in place. It sounds obvious but it’s important to specifically consider that if you were wrong about the existence of the god you once worshipped, you were also wrong if you thought that this god was the only possible source of love, happiness, logic, purpose, fulfillment or anything else, as long as these things exist in any sense. There are things outside of religion to fill the hole you feel, despite what religions say.

    You’ve realised that your life has no purpose which is predetermined by some absolute authority. If you’re explicitly looking for a new purpose in life, you could let it come to you in a similar way: externally, from non-absolute authorities (but at least ones you know exist) such as peer groups and organisations which could use you in their plans. Before you resign yourself to that, though, why not see whether you have your own goals to achieve? Is there perhaps something you wanted to do when you were younger, but put aside in favour of religious pursuits? Maybe you could pick it up again. If you don’t find a new purpose immediately, you can take heart from the fact that when you do find something real to which you want to devote your time, you’ll be free to do so.

    An eternity in Heaven can be comforting to look forward to, but it’s also a lot of pressure. One step out of line, according to the old dogma, and you swap it for an eternity of torment. You never really know what constitutes a step out of line, at that, so if you’ve made one you might not know to make up for it.

    That’s all behind you now. There is great relief in the realisation that you don’t have to please some overlord who doesn’t tell you what he wants and condemns you if you fail him. You can get on with the business of living this one life for all it’s worth.

    Believers in gods and other supernatural stuff often do judge and misunderstand non-believers, sometimes more than they do followers of different faiths. If you want that to stop, you need to talk to the believers you know. You might not bring them round to your position, but chances are you’ll be able to clear up some misconceptions about it. (There are many.) It’s difficult to get people to seriously consider the tenability of their own positions, but it’s much easier to help them see a certain amount of sense in other people’s positions, for example yours. Empathy is easier than self-analysis.

    I can’t tell you how to live your life and I wouldn’t presume to, but I’ve spoken to a lot of people while they go through this transitional phase you’re in. (It’s why many feel the need to Ask the Atheist.) I can tell you that it is just a phase, which I’ve decided to name faithdrawal. Those who don’t relapse into belief do eventually get more comfortable with its absence. I know I did.


    A little lonely.

    Question :

    I was formerly a hard core, truly devoted, sincere believer.

    Then “pop” … awareness, englightenment….and emptiness.

    When your whole life is grounded in the belief in a supreme being, and you remove the premise of god and eternity.  It changes your perspective.  That’s a huge gap you’ve got all of a sudden.

    It’s heartbreaking and depressing.  I feel judged and misunderstood by practically all believers and “spiritual” people.

    Where do I go from here?

    Answer :

    What you’re feeling is understandable. When we live in a world that still believes in magic and hocus pocus, it’s hard not to feel estranged from the people around us.  That can leave us feeling a bit lonely. My suggestion would be to find other like minded believers out there. Find a local meetup of atheists and share a drink or a meal with them. This will help you feel a lot less lonely and give you the oppertunity to meet some like minded people. They will also help to show you that life can and will go on, and that it doesn’t have to be all that depressing. You’re in control of your life, not some mystical mumbo jumbo bullshit. That’s a lot of power to have.

    Think of it this way, if you were an eagle that spent it’s life believing it was a pig, when you discovered you could fly, would you stay in the pig pen or fly into the clouds ?

    Hope that helps.