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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why I am not an Atheist

As with all posts on this blog: The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and in no way represent the views of any organization,  group, or individual living or dead. If you like the opinions expressed here, well and good; if not, you are more than welcome to disagree, and to help me improve them. Further, the author reserves the right to change his opinion on any of these matters at any time. That is all.


Most folks who meet me, and can stand the non-stop self-absorbed monologue that I try and pass off as conversation, would probably come away with the idea that I was an essentially rational human being- a little nutty, but essentially rational. I say this because I have found that many people out there operate under the assumption that religious types like myself are simple, close-minded nut jobs (admittedly I do spend too much time hanging out on Reddit, so you'll have that).
On behalf of simple, close-minded nut jobs like myself, let me clarify the following points:
  • I have never met a single person who takes every word of the Bible literally, and neither have you. Some claim to, but ask them, when it says in Psalm 50:10, "...for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills." does that mean that the cattle on hill 1,001 isn't God's? They will argue that it still is, because they understand the nature of figurative language. This is because they, like yours truly, take the Bible "literarally" rather than literally. Those of us who have studied its origins have complex ideas about its history and do not believe it to have been dictated from the mouth of God, or free from error. We understand it is the product of communities, editors, etc... Just saying.
  • Evolution happens- it does. Yes it is a theory, it is a darned good one and it makes the most sense based upon all available data. This does not nullify the idea of the existence of God.
  • Were extra-terrestrial beings to land in every major city in the world simultaneously right now, it would do nothing to slow or stop belief in God, or the Christian religion.
  • I do not wish to make my religion law or live in a theocracy. I have seen how those play out- no thank you.
  • Religion is not responsible for every war any more than it can take credit for every hospital and university, or any more than Science is responsible for every war by giving us metallurgy, ballistics, physics, etc and can take credit for every hospital and university because of their improvement through the application of the scientific method... In this sense, religion is a cultural force and can be used for good or ill. It is, admittedly especially heinous when a religion that advocates for peace is used to justify violence, but that does not make the religion qua the religion bad, merely those who twist it and those who allow themselves to be manipulated by it.People do these thing, good and bad, war and hospitals.
  • To misquote Paul Tillich (a 20th century theologian): God does not exist, God is existence. I believe that God is the essence of being itself, not some white dude on a cloud.
  • I do not think God is going to send you to hell. The idea that God would damn you or anyone for all eternity for not being able to sign off on a mission statement, or believe the right things, makes God an arbitrary and capricious monster (angry Christians, see the author's note at the top of the page).
  • Science and Theology (the study of God) are not competing forces. Faith and reason are not opposites. They are different ways of understanding and they do different things, the problem comes in when people misunderstand their nature and their use. Walk into a kitchen with a scientist and kettle of water boiling on a stove and ask the scientist why it is boiling. They may tell you about the laws of thermodynamics and how the heat energy is being transferred from the heat source through the kettle and into the water via radiation, convection and conduction. The molecules in the water, excited by the heat, spread farther and farther apart, which results in this case has resulted in the visible phenomenon of boiling (angry scientists, I realize this is probably a rudimentary and flawed understanding- please see the author's disclaimer at the top of the page and feel free to set me straight). Walk into the same kitchen with a theologian and with the same kettle boiling and ask them the same question, "Why is it boiling?" They may tell you, "Someone wanted tea." They are both good answers but they take the meaning of the word "why" differently and yield different results.
That said, I am a Christian, and I am because of something sort of like what theologians have understood as "prevenient grace". There was a point in my life where God spoke to me in such a way that I know it was God, just like I know it was my wife who kissed me before I walked out the door this morning. To this day God continues to speak to me through the tropes and idioms of the Christian religion- particularly through Christ. If this were not the case, I do not know whether I would be an Agnostic, Atheist, Christian, Buddhist, or Pastafarian. But it happened. I had an experience that my Atheist friends have not had, and I am accountable to it. To ask them to be accountable to it too would be like saying they ought to kiss my wife on their way out the door in the morning. I am happy to tell you about my faith, if you are interested- and who knows perhaps our talk could be the medium through which God chooses to speak to you- maybe not, but that's between you and God. In the mean time, I can only work on doing what God has asked of me: loving everyone, caring for the sick- the poor- the outcast, doing what I can to make the world a better, more loving, peaceful and just place and in that way allowing the light and love of God to shine through me.

12 comments:

  1. 1) So make a list of which verses in your religious text are literal, and which are metaphor.

    2) Yes, evolution, abiogenesis, planet formation, solar formation, big bang all happened, and they directly contradict the creation myth (Genesis).

    3) So if extra-terrestrials land, it would mean your got omitted a pretty damn important piece of information in your religious text, yet he mentioned a bunch of animals (strangely enough, all around the area of the writers, no kangaroos mentioned), he mentioned unicorns, dragons, talking donkeys, talking snakes, but not an advanced race capable of interstellar travel.

    4) You do not wish to make my religion law or live in a theocracy, but most of your religious buddies do, and they vote for it, and I don't see you fighting against it. You silently support them, just because you're in the same club.

    5) "Religion is not responsible for every war" - true, but it's responsible for many of them, plus the torture and execution of heretics, torture and execution of witches (which Christians still practice in Africa under the guide of the american pastors).

    6) "God does not exist, God is existence. I believe that God is the essence of being itself, not some white dude on a cloud." - well, it means you haven't read your bible. Genesis 1:27.

    7) "Science and Theology (the study of God) are not competing forces" - FALSE. Science directly contradicts pretty much ever supernatural claim in the bible.

    "Faith and reason are not opposites" - FALSE. Faith, by definition, is believing something without evidence. Faith is gullibility. Reason is pretty much the opposite.

    "Why is it boiling?" metaphor you were trying to shoehorn has nothing to do with faith, it just showed that there are two different meanings of the word "why". It doesn't support your claim at all.

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  2. Your arguments about Genesis are based upon a misunderstanding of the nature of Hebrew poetry (yes the creation story in Genesis is a poem) and hermeneutics (the discipline of biblical interpretation). Your point on the omission of aliens from the Bible is an interesting one. The reason for my claim is I don't see what effect it would have on the underlying claims of the Christian religion. On point four, you don't see me fighting against it because you don't know me. If you did, you would.
    On point 5, I agree religious rhetoric has been used to attempt to justify and further all sorts of atrocities- in the absence of religion, do you really believe such atrocities would cease or do you think those attempting to instigate them would simply use another lexicon.
    Point six, the image of God language has not been traditionally interpreted to mean physical likeness- nor do I see from the text why it should be. Unless the god described in it is both simultaneously both male and female...
    Point seven, just because you spell the word "FALSE" in all caps doesn't make you right. Faith, by definition is "confidence or trust in a person or thing". The Greek word "pistis" (usually translated "faith" in English) denotes fidelity, trust, shared vision, and assent- in other words the language of faith is relational language.
    The "why is it boiling?" metaphor points to the relational nature of theological inquiry in that when asking the question "why" it looks at issues of intention and personal agency rather than mechanics.

    On a separate note, thanks for the comments! And thank you for your passion for the truth and rigorous argumentation. They are commendable!

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    1. You didn't address #1. You basically claim that genesis is a poem, and I don't see how a literary form makes the content true or not. Poems can be about real or about imaginary events.

      If some of the verses are metaphorical, which ones? And how do you know which ones?

      You did the same with #6 - anything that doesn't fit the reality is suddenly a metaphor, yet god isn't. It's a logical fallacy, and it's called "special pleading".

      #7 You chose the definition of the word "faith" that doesn't apply. Faith, when it comes to religion, it believing something without evidence.

      Unless you have evidence of god, then maybe you should publish it in a peer-reviewed journal and collect your Nobel prize. But I bet all you have is "faith", and not in the definition you chose, but in the definition I posted - believing something without evidence.

      "I have faith in this rope while mountain climbing" is not the same as "I have faith that Zeus is real". Overall majority of people, when talking about faith, DO use the second meaning.

      "relational nature of theological inquiry in that when asking the question "why" it looks at issues of intention and personal agency rather than mechanics." - directly contradicts biblical claims, which DO involve a lot of mechanics, and should be scientifically testable.

      Too bad your supposed god stopped doing anything miraculous as soon as we developed science and all kinds of recording devices. It seems like the most power your god has is showing up on a burn toast, and even that is questionable, since most of the time it could be Charles Manson.

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    2. Greetings, again, friend!

      I am sorry I wasn't explicit. The genre of the creation accounts is important because of the nature of poetry. Take Shel Silverstein's "The Baby Bat":

      “The baby bat
      Screamed out in fright,
      'Turn on the dark,
      I'm afraid of the light.”

      Here the point of the poem is to point to the relative and subjective nature of fear and to reassure children that just as the bat has little to fear from the light (something with which they are presumably comfortable) they should not fear the dark. To treat it as a text outlining the details of chiropterology and the intricacies of bat communication and psychology would be to miss the point.

      Similarly the first creation account in Genesis (attributed to the E source)is intended to demonstrate there is an order to the universe, the goodness of the cosmos, rhythms to the patterns of life, and the sovereignty of God. The second account (attributed to J) is told in the form of prose and is a fable constructed to demonstrate many different things (a treatment of each of which [e.g.: the breakdown of relationships between humanity and creation, one another, and the deity; the origins of civilization, etc...] would warrant a longer treatment than this forum allows for).

      You asked "If some of the verses are metaphorical, which ones? And how do you know which ones?" This is a good question. The discipline of hermeneutics has much to say on the topic and the results are manifold. As with most literary criticism there is more than a little of the element of the subjective involved. I find a couple of rules to be useful in determining when to identify metaphor: First, examine the genre you are reading- is it poetry, is it heilsgeschichte (holy history), gospel, apocalypse, epistle, etc... each has its own interpretive rules and common tropes. If you are looking for more on the subject of biblical interpretation, "To Each Its Own Meaning" McKenzie and Haynes ed., and "Biblical Interpretation: a Roadmap" by Tiffany and Ringe are a great place to start. I believe this also helps shine some light on where I was going with point six. Interpretation requires attention to detail and an eye for sophistication and nuance in the eye of the interpreter. There is a reason that many scholars spend a lifetime working on one particular text or set of texts.

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    3. Your next response: "#7 You chose the definition of the word "faith" that doesn't apply. Faith, when it comes to religion, it believing something without evidence." Part of my point in writing was to explain that religion is relational and uses the language of relationship. Faith in the religious sense is comprised of assent, trust, fidelity and vision. The thing is that in most discourse between the religious and the non-religious we are "playing different games" take checkers and chess of example. In checkers the word "king" is defined as follows:
      "When a player’s piece lands in one of the squares at the far end of the board, its move ends there and it becomes a king.

      A king is allowed to move or jump in any of the four diagonal directions within the limits of the board. A king cannot jump over one of the player’s own pieces." (http://www.darkfish.com/checkers/rules.html, accessed 4/25/12)

      Whereas: "In chess, the king (♔, ♚) is the most important piece. The object of the game is to trap the opponent's king so that its escape is not possible (checkmate). If a player's king is threatened with capture, it is said to be in check, and the player must remove the threat of capture on the next move. If this cannot be done, the king is said to be in checkmate. Although the king is the most important piece, it is usually the weakest piece in the game until a later phase, the endgame." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_%28chess%29, accessed 04/25/12).

      Your definition of faith is not the one intended in the article, neither is it the one that is reflected in the lives of the faithful, nor is it the first definition provided when the word is researched (cf: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/faith; http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/faith). You make the point, "Overall majority of people, when talking about faith, DO use the second meaning."

      This one sort of puzzled me:""relational nature of theological inquiry in that when asking the question "why" it looks at issues of intention and personal agency rather than mechanics." - directly contradicts biblical claims, which DO involve a lot of mechanics, and should be scientifically testable." I am unaware of what you may be talking about. Yes, the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds, that is testable but it is used as an example in a parable in which a commonly accepted cultural norm is used to make a larger point.

      As to the last point, God still works miracles- when I see long held hatreds abandoned at the call of Christ to forgive and allow oneself to be wronged, I see a miracle there. The burnt toast thing is funny, though.

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  3. "On point 5, I agree religious rhetoric has been used to attempt to justify and further all sorts of atrocities- in the absence of religion, do you really believe such atrocities would cease or do you think those attempting to instigate them would simply use another lexicon."

    There would be less. For a good person to do bad things it takes religion.

    "Point seven, just because you spell the word "FALSE" in all caps doesn't make you right. Faith, by definition is "confidence or trust in a person or thing". The Greek word "pistis" (usually translated "faith" in English) denotes fidelity, trust, shared vision, and assent- in other words the language of faith is relational language."

    Nope, the lexical definition of "faith" is belief with no evidence. Just because a word comes from a Latin/Greek root does not mean it shares the same meaning. If "faith" meant "trust" we would use "trust" in the place of faith.


    "Point six, the image of God language has not been traditionally interpreted to mean physical likeness- nor do I see from the text why it should be. Unless the god described in it is both simultaneously both male and female..."

    Alright this last point really leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Let me put something out there that most Christians do not realize. The Book of Genesis was written by at least 3 different authors and most probably many more, starting around 2,000 B.C.E. and they were edited many many many times within a short period of time. The reason for this is that the original writers of the bible were polytheists who believed in many gods that belonged in a pantheon of gods. Notably the gods Elohim and Yahweh were the major gods (With Elohim being the favored one in Genesis and Yahweh being favored in Exodus....then others like El and El Shaddai being brought in by later authors).

    The reason I write this is because the writers of the bible very much did have a belief in the physical existence of the gods. The gods of the Bible are not even very original, and look (physically) as follows:

    Yahweh based on and looked a lot like Enlil
    Elohim based on and looked a lot like Enki
    El Shaddai based on Ishtar

    and the list goes on and on.

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    1. Stefan,

      Thank you for your input and your engagement! Now, on to your commentary.


      You state, "There would be less. For a good person to do bad things it takes religion." Do you really think so? I just don't think this comment jives with reality.

      On your next point: "Nope, the lexical definition of "faith" is belief with no evidence. Just because a word comes from a Latin/Greek root does not mean it shares the same meaning. If "faith" meant "trust" we would use "trust" in the place of faith." the lexical definition you provided is not the primary one (see the conversation above) and when we are discussing the use of the word "faith" in the New Testament (which was penned in Koine Greek) I find the definition of the word being rendered "faith" to be of paramount importance. Lastly, there are all sorts of examples of synonyms and words with various glosses of meaning in the English language, why should this one be different? (also see the above discussion on the nature of the word "king")

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    2. On your last point: "Alright this last point really leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Let me put something out there that most Christians do not realize. The Book of Genesis was written by at least 3 different authors and most probably many more, starting around 2,000 B.C.E. and they were edited many many many times within a short period of time. The reason for this is that the original writers of the bible were polytheists who believed in many gods that belonged in a pantheon of gods. Notably the gods Elohim and Yahweh were the major gods (With Elohim being the favored one in Genesis and Yahweh being favored in Exodus....then others like El and El Shaddai being brought in by later authors).

      The reason I write this is because the writers of the bible very much did have a belief in the physical existence of the gods. The gods of the Bible are not even very original, and look (physically) as follows:

      Yahweh based on and looked a lot like Enlil
      Elohim based on and looked a lot like Enki
      El Shaddai based on Ishtar

      and the list goes on and on."

      A couple of corrections- Genesis had innumerable authors but likely at least four schools of editors (commonly known as the JEDP theory)and your dating of 2000 BCE goes back a little farther than I am willing to for authorship of the book of Genesis, though it is likely that these stories find their origins and oral communication of this period.

      And you are correct that the origins of the Hebrew religion can be found in polytheism. There are large portions of Genesis (and other portions of Hebrew Bible) that are clearly based upon/critiques of Babylonian, Canaanite, and Egyptian religions. (two great sources here are "The Contest of Scripture. Vol 1: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World" Liden ed; and "Readings from the Ancient Near East" Arnold and Beyer eds.)
      In fact, God talks to the pantheon of gods you mentioned early on in Genesis 1.26 where God says, "Let us make man in our own image" has him talking to the pantheon of gods.
      The descriptions of the Hebrew gods (who eventually coalesced into one) are fascinating political and ethical critiques of the dominant Babylonian culture. Read the Epic of Gilgamesh then Genesis 6-9 and look at the behaviors of the people and the deities to get a good feel for the critique, bearing in mind the role of the Hebrew people as captives and oppressed people within the larger Babylonian culture. That having been said, the image of God language in Genesis 1:27 is still, in my esteem not referring to a particular physical likeness (for a great historical treatment of the text, see "The Image of God: Genesis 1:26-28 in a Century of Old Testament Research). Rather it is a commentary on the nature of human relations (cf G. von Rad) and human potentiality.

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  4. In regards to the critique of the factual interpretation of Genesis 1...
    First Paul, I actually believe it is a Priestly source (who also used Elohim), but Gen 1 is typically considered a Priestly source. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priestly_source#Pentateuch

    This is important because the Priests (or shall we just say P) wrote Gen 1 for a specific reason, and it wasn't to describe the factual, at least scientifically factual, creation of the world. It was written to help encourage the Jews, who were under Babylonian captivity at the time, to regain trust in the Jewish faith and more importantly their God. You see, back then when a country was taken over be another country, their god was considered to be victorious over the losing country's god. Thus, the Jews had felt that the Babylonian god (well there were a lot of Babylonian gods but at this time Marduk was considered the king of them all)Marduk had beaten Yahweh. What was worse for the Jews was their having to relive the reality of this defeat every year when the Babylonians celebrated Marduk's victory of the crazy sea goddess Tiamat (who destroyed her own children in the process of the creation story that revolved around her). Anyway, essentially every year there was a long celebration of Marduk's renewed defeat over Tiamat and consequently by extension this reminded the Jews of Yahweh's defeat by him as well. The priests wrote Gen 1 essentially as a soft, yet very poignant polemic against the Babylonians' story of Marduk and Tiamat. See, Marduk's and Tiamat's story was chaotic and cataclysmic. The Jews' story was peaceful and life-creating. Marduk had to fight against Tiamat and her crazy sea antics, while Yahweh calmed the chaotic sea with only a word. Marduk had to reclaim his victory year after year over Tiamat, while Yahweh created in one week and creation was completeat that point, so much so that Yahweh rested and enjoyed his creation on the 7th day. Anyway, I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that Gen 1 was written as a comfort to the Jews that their god was still in control and as a subversive narrative against the Babylonians and their gods. Gen 1 does give some folk-tale type answers for why a lot of things are the way they are, but this really wasn't the main point of the narrative, nor was it really meant as definitive fact. Really, though this will need an entirely different post, separating things into fact and myth really was not in vogue until thousands of years later.

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  5. Ryan, I absolutely agree with you in terms of authorial intent. And I agree it could use a post (or 1,000) of its own; feel like writing?

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  6. High Paul, stumbled on this link from Reddit in which I just stumbled on the Christianity Subreddit...who knew!

    Any ways, can you please explain where you get this ideal I quoted at the bottom?

    'I do not think God is going to send you to hell. The idea that God would damn you or anyone for all eternity for not being able to sign off on a mission statement, or believe the right things, makes God an arbitrary and capricious monster (angry Christians, see the author's note at the top of the page).'

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  7. Sure, WookieeLM, I would be happy to. There are a couple different ideas at work here. The first is simple logic. If our behavior is determined through both nature (our biological make-up) and nurture (the sum total of the historical and sociological situation within which we find ourselves) and we wish to accept that God is all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful, then we understand that God could have created a world in which all still had free-will yet no one chose to sin... There are several ways to work around this theologically and philosophically, but if we accept reformed ideas about the nature of God and humanity (TULIP) then it stands to reason that God cannot be all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful, only two out of the three.

    The second idea is that God's work in Christ provided salvation and reconciliation for all of humanity as a free gift, once and for all, and that it is by the faithfulness of Christ and not our mental assent to any doctrine that has secured our salvation.

    For Scriptural support, one can turn to Galatians 2:16 (this passage is mistranslated in most English texts which has contributed to the prevalence of the idea that assent is required for salvation). "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." (many English translations use the word "in" as in "faith in Christ" in the Greek it is a simple Genitive construction and is better translated "faith, or faithfulness of Christ".

    And it is not Galatians 2 alone that testifies to the salvation of all humanity. That phrase translated "faith in Christ" in Greek is pisteos Christou, and it can also be found in Philippians 3:9, "... and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faith of Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith."

    Romans also speaks about the universal scope of the salvation of all humanity that is found in Christ. In Romans 5 and following Paul constructs a beautiful argument about the effects of sin upon humanity that climaxes in the statement, "18Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."- Romans 5:18-21

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