Disrespectful Friend

“It’s ultimately God himself who’s supposed to do the converting, and the prescribed way for mortal Christians to help is to keep Him in your face.”

Question from Rick:
I have a friend who is a christian. He is aware that I am an atheist, and do not believe in god/gods or anything like that. But when we talk he always seems to slip a bible reference in there. And I don’t mean scriptures. For example, we’ll be having a conversation about women (as most guys do) and he will always say something like, “well that’s how they are, its right there in the bible, you know what I mean?” And I always respond like “I hear you talking, but you know I don’t believe that.” And that starts a whole argument about who’s right or wrong. I like him as a person, but dislike him as a christian. Any thoughts on how to handle the situation?

It’s hard to go on the words alone. The way in which he says such things would tell us a great deal more. He might simply not consider your atheism before referring to the Bible as if you’re about to agree with him, implying that he’s inconsiderate or simply a bit self-absorbed. (Perhaps he doesn’t have many atheist friends.) Or, perhaps he has you pegged and he says things like that to draw you into a religious discussion, which apparently works like a charm.

I tend to suspect the latter, in the absence of context. Christians are told to spread the capital-W Word whenever possible, and very little emphasis is placed on making it stick. The idea is that the more a man simply thinks about God, even in terms of denial, the more likely he is to come around. It’s ultimately God himself who’s supposed to do the converting, and the prescribed way for mortal Christians to help is to keep Him in your face.

Back to your friend…if you don’t like to hear about the Bible, someone like this isn’t going to lay off if you don’t straight up ask him to. If you do ask, and he carries on, maybe you’ll know more about why. Or you could just ask why.

Keep us posted, Rick. Anyone else have friends like this?


The Ten Kingdoms

“Even prophecies that appear vindicated and legitimate need not be the result of genuine prescience, for a variety of possible reasons.”

Question from Ebony:
I’ve recently come to my senses and become an atheist. I have been puzzled by one thing in the Bible. The 10 kingdoms of the Roman Empire that were predicted. I can’t find any evidence that the book was written after this time. There has to be a reasonable explaination. Please help me.

See my piece on prophecies. Even prophecies that appear vindicated and legitimate need not be the result of genuine prescience, for a variety of possible reasons.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, it didn’t instantly shatter into exactly ten pieces, each with its own king ready to roll. First it split into the Eastern and Western Empires, then the Visigoths and other invaders stripped away one country after another until Constantinople was sacked and there was nothing left.

If you think about it, it was inevitable that there would be ten kingdoms at some point. Starting with one whole thing and ending with the dozens of modern nations which were geographically within the Empire at its peak, the number of independent states and/or the number of monarchs must have been ten somewhere in between. (You sound as if you know which specific kingdoms they are; care to fill us in?)

The empire having already split into ten kingdoms is only one interpretation the faithful seriously consider. Some anticipate that the former Empire will ultimately become ten kingdoms, united by the Antichrist, not long before the end of the world. In this form it joins the many endtime prophecies which people argue are beginning to come true, in this case by pointing to volatile political situations in Europe.

Therefore, in the context of my earlier piece this one may be a case of 1. High Probability of Success, 2. Still Unknown and/or 4. Shoehorned.


Atheism and the Bible

“If there’s no God, and Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, it doesn’t mean that every single word of the Bible is false.”

Question from Sigurd:
If I belive in science and darwinism and do not belive in any god what so ever.
But I belive the persons in the bible are stories of actual people and their lives.
Am I then an atheist?

I think it’s safe to say that you are.

If there’s no God, and Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, it doesn’t mean that every single word of the Bible is false. Some characters are known historical figures: Pontius Pilate, King Herod, Caiaphas and several different Pharaohs. Many events after the Resurrection probably have some truth in them, as they concern the early mortal Christians’ doings and are light on miracles. At the very least the Bible is set in some real places, such as Jerusalem and Memphis (in Egypt, not America).

Not believing in gods is what makes you an atheist. If you’re of the opinion that the Bible is accurate to a lesser extent when it comes to more mundane matters, it makes no difference unless it then convinces you that the Biblical God is real.


Coming Out

“It’s really very similar to telling one’s parents that one is gay; nobody really knows how homophobic they are until they’re confronted with real homosexuality.”

Question from George:
How should i tell my parents i am an atheist? They’re not religious but they believe. Help please.

You know your parents better than I do, but you’re probably better off than the many young atheists out there who are living with extremely religious parents. Over at Ask the AtheistS, many have told their stories and asked for advice. Some of them are afraid of being disowned, sent to evangelical camps or otherwise severely punished. Advising these people is always difficult; sometimes it seems like the only good option is to wait for adulthood and independence.

Your probably don’t have as much to fear from your folks, though they might still get upset. Faith comes to the forefront of any believer’s mind when it’s threatened. It’s really very similar to telling one’s parents that one is gay; nobody really knows how homophobic they are until they’re confronted with real homosexuality.

If it’s important for you to be truthful with them, there’s no substitute for coming right out and saying it. Be prepared to answer any questions they come back with. You may immediately get the chance to dispel any misconceptions of atheism they might have.

Two other things you might have to deal with:
– They’re not religious and they’ve never had to convert anyone before. If they try their hand at apologetics to win you back, they might not be very good at it. The arguments or questions they use could offend you, or else sound really stupid. That’s when you need to be at your most patient and understanding, and talk them through things.
– Beyond being upset with you, they may be upset with themselves for giving you the kind of upbringing that could produce an atheist. In this case you need to reassure them that they’ve simply raised a boy who knows how to think things through and draw your own conclusions, which will serve you well in life. It’s just that you’ve come to a different conclusion to theirs.

Good luck, and if you go through with it, let us know how it goes. If anyone else has a story of their own “coming out” moment, comment and share it here.


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.