Category Archives: Atheism

Mike Seaver, Believer!

Remember Kirk Cameron? He appeared on 167 episodes of the TV series “Growing Pains,” part of that late 1980’s phenomenon of affluent-family situation comedies with aging hippie parents who spent too much time at home and kids were who were mildly more censorious and “together” than the grownups around them.

A cute teenage boy, Cameron has aged into an identical 41-year-old man with an absurdly boyish face lit up from inside. His personal website warns women between 35 and 45 that they “may suffer from a medical condition now known as ‘Seaver Fever’” (Mike Seaver was the name of Cameron’s “Growing Pains” character), and he’s got that right.

Fun to reminisce, of course, but what does Cameron have to say to The God Project Dot Net? Plenty, it turns out. A self-described atheist as a young man, Cameron had a sudden, Paul-like conversion one day while sitting in his car listening to a book on tape. Today he is something of a professional evangelical preacher, father of six, founder of Camp Firefly for sick children – and co-founder with Ray Comfort of a reality TV ministry called “The Way of the Master” (quoting Mark), now in its fourth season.

Comfort is an ex-New Zealander who sees himself in a strictly evangelical line from John Wesley to Charles Spurgeon to George Whitefield – dirt-scorching revival preachers whose primary mission was true conversion of non-believers, including other Christians. His LivingWaters organization, based in California, runs an online university, posts daily cartoons, “Weekly Witnessing Clips,” and even global “Christian Persecution News” (“Maldives Arrests, Deports Indian Teacher for Owning Bible”).

Comfort’s sermon “Hell’s Best Kept Secret” is what converted Cameron in his car, and Seaver Fever is the best thing to happen to Comfort’s ministerial outreach since his own conversion in 1972. Together, Comfort and Cameron created “The Way of the Master,” which – they say – airs on 31 networks in 70 countries and has sold more than 20,000 copies. It’s a naked how-to-convert kit, and the TV show finds Comfort and Cameron trotting around the globe confronting unbelievers with the Truth – very much in the tradition of early evangelists such as Paul, Titus, Timothy and Silvanus.

Comfort is more of a writer, but Cameron is a master of TV and his outreach strategy is obviously video-centric. In 2007, he and Comfort took the affirmative side in a 90-minute “Nightline Face-Off” in Manhattan on the topic “Does God Exist?” Opposing them were two amateur atheists and web video stars (“Blasphemy Challenge”) named Brian Sapient and Kelly (no last name; big hooters).

Cameron started:

“We’d like to show you that the existence of God can be proven, 100 percent, absolutely, without the use of faith. And secondly … I want to pull back the curtain and show that the number one reason that people don’t believe in God is not a lack of evidence, but because of a theory that many scientists today believe to be a fairytale for grownups.”

He refers, of course, to evolution. Evangelicals are touchingly obsessed with evolution. But I’m convinced they are dead wrong in assuming it is the big barrier to mass conversion. The barrier is much wider and deeper, consisting mainly of indifference and – I think – our great distance from death. People forget that it’s only in the 20th century people stopped routinely dying young. Antibiotics are a better proselytizer for atheism than evolution.

But back to “Nightline.” Atheist Sapient (whose name is Latin for “smart,” which makes me think it’s fake), laid it out there: “We are here to respond to [Cameron’s] claims.”

Let the sniping begin. The exchange on video starts here. We’ll talk about what happened next time.


Wrights and Wrongs

N. T. "Tom-Tom" Wright

N. T. “Tom-Tom” Wright is on the spot. He’s been challenged to explain — not cavil, calumniate, careen or cajole, but EXPLAIN — how he can believe in the Christian God in a world where a child dies of starvation every, well, no one is quite sure how often, but it happens all the time!

First, says Wright, the Gospel message is that Jesus’ ministry was “the inauguration of ‘God being in charge of the world’ in a new way.” This “new way” was not what contemporary Jews expected, nor is it the kind of Godly world we might want. But it was the reality of what Wright likes to call the “inbreaking of the Kingdom” into our world.

Okay, so Jesus represents a glimpse of what the world would look like were God in charge. Which means he’s not in charge yet; which means — here I’m saying what I think Wright is saying, which may not be right, or Wright, but is, ahem, write — that it’s wrong to think human suffering somehow proves God’s non-existence. He’s not quite in charge yet.

Here, it gets sticky. Wright makes the poignant point that the Gospels — and Jesus himself — represent “a challenge to all expectations.” This is particularly true when we try to explain how the Kingdom of God is supposed to be started by an executed-and-resurrected criminal. We’re back to the old, old Christian dilemma of just how and why a suffering God-man was required to bring on the Kingdom.

Why didn’t God just bring it on? What’s the point of the man on the cross?

Well, says Wright: “Near the heart of Jesus’ proclamation lies a striking redefinition of power itself, which looks as though it’s pointing in the direction of God’s ‘running the world’ … in what you might call a deliberately, almost studiedly, self-abnegating way.”

Wright links atonement and the problem of evil. The Gospels are another chapter in God’s story of Israel, a story that continues today and points toward a future redemption that has already, in a real way, begun.

Poetic summary: “It is because I believe in Jesus’ resurrection that I believe that the creator God has inaugurated his new creation in which, at the last, he will wipe away all tears from all eyes.” Ultimately, if you don’t believe in resurrection, the debate itself is pointless — and, reading the Ehrman-Wright fight logs, I get the dismaying feeling it is.

In the meantime, Wright says, Christians should work in the world as healers and love-bringers, like Jesus, and so provide a mild foretaste of the glorious banquet to come. Forgiveness looses all burdens.

Ehrman’s response is two-fold. First, he reiterates the thesis of his book “God’s Problem,” pointing out that the Biblical view of suffering is quite clearly “the reason people suffer is because they have sinned and God is punishing them for it.” He cites Amos 3-4, where God’s on a killing spree, and mentions the Flood in Genesis where the entire human race (almost) is slaughtered. And the Book of Revelation is no sweeter.

But really, he says, people like Wright who seem to believe “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” while they are certainly in the Markan and Pauline tradition, are always wrong. “The kingdom never did come. You seem to think that it will.” The Synoptic Gospels use Jesus to show what the Kingdom will look like (no death, disease, demons, etc.) but do not claim it has already come — just that it will, very soon.

Wright is still waiting. Ehrman has stopped. He doesn’t think it’s coming.

The last word goes to Wright, and no end is in sight. He still takes issue with Ehrman’s maudlin litany of grotesquerie (20 pages on the Holocaust, rather than 2), which he thinks is agnostic propaganda. More seriously, he thinks Ehrman is wrong about Amos, et al.

Amos wasn’t trying to explain suffering, says Wright, but laying down the serious stakes involved in the covenant with God: “The prophets were not, by and large, answering our philosophical question, but acting (so they seem to have believed) as mouthpieces for the covenant God.”

Ultimately, as in Job, God’s mind is inscrutable to us:

We are never in a position to judge God (if God there be). That’s not a pious platitude, but a rather obvious ontological reality.

God decided to call Abraham and “address the problem of evil through people who are part of the problem as well as part of the solution.” It’s a “mess.” Then with Jesus, it gets even messier.

Wright returns to the resurrection. Essential Christianity is that “the kingdom did come through the death and resurrection of Jesus.” So with that event, “God’s new world — the world where God’s writ runs — had already begun.” The Holy Spirit worked through them to change the world right away. Neither the early Christians nor Wright are actually waiting for anything. It’s here.

So the kingdom is here. Look around. Hmmm? As Wright says, it’s not what we expected. But the suffering God on the cross tells us it’s here.

Let me put all this in my own words and get it wrong.

Bart Ehrman: Human beings suffer. The Bible explains suffering as punishment for sin and that is morally unsatisfying. Jesus’ followers thought the Kingdom would come soon. They were wrong. God probably does not exist.

Tom-Tom Wright: God exists. The Bible is not God’s apologetic for suffering but the story of how he chose to work out salvation through the people of Israel. Working through people is messy. God becoming man and suffering was a challenge that showed “my ways are not your ways.” We must trust in the resurrection but ultimately can not understand suffering.

So we are where we started. Who won? I give points for logic and clarity to Ehrman and points for spooky nuance to Wright. Ultimately, I’d rather live in Wright’s world. Perhaps there is no “real world” at all — perhaps we can choose where to live.

Suffering has ended. This post is complete.

Making the Rounds

We were listening in to an epic debate between Rock Star Bart “Sparky” Ehrman and N.T. “Tom-Tom” Wright. Their topic: Is the existence of a Christian God compatible with human suffering? (I invented these nicknames out of sheer whimsy, not disrespect. And Ehrman makes clear he’s a historian, not a theologian, so I hereby retire his erroneous Spy-like title.)

Round 1: Sparky says it’s too, too much — God makes no sense in a world such as this. And if he’d been on the 10 bus down Nicollet Mall yesterday morning at 7am, he would not have changed his mind, believe me.

Round 2: Tom-Tom accuses Sparky of making an appeal to emotion. The Biblical story is one of God working out a long-range plan to save a suffering humanity.

Now, Round 3: Sparky will have none of it. Suffering is human and so evokes an emotional response. “In the time that it has taken me to write this response to your posting, there have been something like thirty thousand children who have died in this way — by horribly starving to death — in the world.”

In his previous riposte, Sparky had said a child dies of starvation “every five seconds” — horrifying enough, of course. But unless he’s claiming it took him 100 days to write his post, the math doesn’t work. The point is clear enough.

Sparky also doesn’t buy Tom-Tom’s claim about the Biblical narrative as the story of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God via Abraham and Isaiah and the Cross. (I’ve read some of Wright’s books and, while a lot of rhetorical fun, they aren’t particularly clear to me; Ehrman, on the other hand, is a legendary teacher of undergrads at UNC Chapel Hill and one of the least confusing men on the planet.)

Basically, the prophets explained suffering as God’s punishment for sin. By the end of the pre-Christian period, that explanation seemed weak: thus, apocaltypicism, which explained pain as the work of “God’s cosmic enemies,” such as the Devil and demons. Most modern Christians probably think this way.

But really, says Sparky, Wright hasn’t responded to the issue at hand: Why is there suffering?

Round 4 finds the boys getting to the heart of the matter. Can you wait?

You Just Don’t Understand

Lisbon 1755

You’ll recall last time we heard from Rock Star Theologian Bart Ehrman the moving, logical story of how he lost his faith by pondering suffering. In a world where a child starves to death every five seconds, Ehrman wonders, where is God?

In the other corner, feisty Bishop N. T. “Tom” Wright of the pro-God party has been listening patiently. How does he respond?

“Our culture,” says Wright, “has fallen prey to emotivism, leading people to say ‘I feel’ when they mean ‘I think.'” And how!

His point is that Ehrman’s starving-child statistics are emotional and not rational appeals that are beside the point. Even Southern-style evangelicals and ex-Anglican bishops accept the existence of evil — or Evil.

“There are of course multiple miseries in the world,” says Wright, “and for many (most?) of them it’s impossible to say, ‘There, look, some good came out of it.'”

There was an earthquake in Lisbon on All Saints Day, 1755, that is widely cited as inspiring Enlightenment Deism and agnosticism — a horrifying natural disaster that challenged Christian platitudes about God’s providence. Any faith that can’t make rational peace with such horrors isn’t faith at all.

So basically, Wright accuses Ehrman of trying to shock people of watery faith into agnosticism.

Wright’s second thrust is that Ehrman misreads the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a treadmill of sin and punishment but the story of God’s “long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery.”

And he misreads the New Testament. To Wright, Jesus is the key: the cross and resurrection “was precisely his [i.e., God’s] answer to the question ‘what does it look like when God is running the world.'”

Now, Ehrman will have none of this kind of gentle slap at his scholarship (which Wright calls “out of date”). Their tone turns sharper.

Russellin’ Match

Having casually discarded the First Mover, Natural Law and Design arguments for the existence of God, our friend Bertrand “Bertie” Russell moves on to the more human, moral arguments. These he sees as being “one stage further in what I shall call the intellectual descent that the Theists have made in their argumentations” — that is, from rigorous (if wrong) logic-based attempts to desperate appeals to emotion.

Pause button.

It’s interesting to see the flippant way Russell discards these arguments. They seem to him so obviously wrong as barely to be worth his time. Theists must either be stupid (most of them) or (as he says of Immanuel Kant) mommy-whipped in that “he believed implicitly in the maxims that he had imbibed at his mother’s knee.” One word: immature.

Bottom line: “What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it.” And also “… the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you.” In other words, believers are big babies.

One other peanut gallery: Like Dawkins and Harris and the others today, Russell didn’t bother to respect the nuances of theology which, on its surface, makes absurd-sounding statements. But for millennia people who talk about God have recognized it’s a topic that does not reduce itself to words — that, in fact, may be impossible to define. Overt absurdities (like the Three-Gods-in-One of the Trinity) may themselves contain a deeper truth. Chatter like this is theology, and it drives logicians like Russell right into a trench.

Press play.

(2) Moral Arguments – Some claim that the innate sense we have there is right and wrong proves the existence of God. (C.S. Lewis says something like this in “Mere Christianity.”) Not quite, Russell says. God is good, so his “fiats are good and not bad,” so any fiat of right and wrong must come from something other than God.

Here Russell has stepped into tired waters that trickle back at least to the Book of Job. Theodicy: If God is good, how can bad exist? Tough question. God at his most vulnerable, driving even Rock Star Theologian Bart Ehrman into the arms of agnosticism.

Next, Russell takes on the belief that “Christ was the best and the wisest of men.” Here he’s moved from arguing against belief in God to explaining why he is not a Christian. It’s a personal issue, but he makes some very bold assertions.

First, he says: “Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about him.” This statement is not reasonable.

Next, he makes Albert Schweitzer’s point that Jesus the man was probably an apocalypticist who thought the world would end soon and was wrong. This is a clever objection I’d never encountered before: If Jesus was wrong about this fact, how smart could he be?

Russell also doesn’t think much of Jesus as a moral person. He betrayed a “vindictive fury.” He planned to separate the sheep from the goats. He was unkind to the Gadarene swine and the fig tree.

So much for Jesus. The Church itself is beneath Russell’s contempt, responsible for “every kind of cruelty,” including the most cruel act of all: retarding progress.

In the end, says Russell, we need to “stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world.” Religion, after all, is just fake “allies in the sky” and “a conception quite unworthy of free men.”

He rejoices: “I find myself quite unable to discern any purpose in the universe.”

Russellin’ with an Atheist

British polymath Bertrand Russell was the Richard Dawkins of his day: a kind of freelance professional atheist. In 1952 a now defunct publication called Illustrated Magazine commissioned but did not publish an article from him called “Is There a God?”

This article is a shorter version of a well-known talk Russell gave to London’s National Secular Society in the Battersea Town Hall on March 6, 1927, published as “Why I Am Not a Christian.” As usual, Russell is lucid and casually convincing.

In the article, he makes the neglected point that “the immense majority of mankind accept the prevailing opinion of their own community” — so there, freethinkers! (Of course, Russell himself could be seen as simply riding shotgun on the opinion of his own atheist, freethinking circle of Oxbridge dandies.)

So — Why was Russell not a Christian?

He starts by asking the sensible question: “What is a Christian?” As you may have noticed, even Christians don’t agree on this one. There’s naked disagreement on this point as far back as the Gospels and Ch. 15 of the Book of Acts: the Jerusalem council shows Paul and James (Jesus’ brother) at odds over the non-trivial point of whether a Christian had to be a Jew. (Paul won: we don’t.)

Speaking in the 1920’s, Russell complains that people are “a little more vague” than they should be. He settles on three points: Christians believe in God, immortality and that the human Jesus was “the very best and wisest of men.” (In fact, Muslims and Deists believe this last point; Christians believe Jesus was both human and divine.)

He then proceeds to take on our old friend Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Theologians of the 18th century and finishes up with a 19th century-style assault on the Church. His objections are hardly new: Hume, Voltaire, Freud and Draper got there first. But he still thinks they’re right.

(1) God – Catholics, says Russell, believe that the existence of God can be proved by unaided reason. There have been many such arguments, but he thinks only one “still has weight with philosophers”: Aquinas’ first argument, known as the First Cause or Prime Mover, which he finds absurd. Why must there be an uncaused Causer? What caused Him? “The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.” (Although Russell’s imagination must have been powerful indeed: just try to imagine infinity.)

Next, he engages the argument championed by Newton and Descartes, among many others, who argue that the existence of natural laws reveals a kind of divine intelligence at work. Russell says these laws are either arbitrary, in which case God is no better than chance, or they have a cause, which is higher than God — leading to the same logical problem as the First Cause, above.

What’s more, science has moved on from Newton, and subatomic physics shows a universe whose natural laws aren’t laws at all but statistical probabilities. Our world is more like a casino than a library, and natural laws “are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance.”

In his Battersea lecture, Russell takes on the so-called “argument from design,” which is still extremely shrill. His objection is that people are not so perfect as to make him think they were created by God. People adapt to conditions, not the obverse. “It has been one of the defects of theologians at all times to over-estimate the importance of our planet.”

[to be continued …]

Religious Epistemology for Absolute Blithering Idiots

Is there a God?

After five months, let’s face it: religious epistemology is the ground under our teepees here. And in the spirit of trying to make ourselves make sense, at least to ourselves, let’s say what it is and is not and why to care. Fear not, friends!

Epistemology is the study of how we know anything. Religious epistemology is how we know God. Specifically, two questions: Is belief in God rational? If not, is it at least reasonable? Rational means compatible with rules of logic and coherence. Reasonable means acceptable by some sane criteria, which may or may not be rational.

So knock-knock: God? Common argument: Belief in God is not rational because (1) there is no evidence to support it, and/or (2) there is evidence to the contrary. The “Problem of Evil” (Why do assholes get rich and nice guys get lupus, “God”?) is the most common chorus for (2). We can’t solve that one here. Argument (1) is probably the single most common justification for atheism since David Hume. It’s what Bertrand Russell supposedly said on his death bed: “Not enough evidence, God.”

Note that (1) does not prove there is no God, the same way debunking every UFO sighting does not prove there are no ETs. It just says: Belief is not rational right now.

Okay, so what kinds of “evidence” are acceptable for believing in God? To strict rationalists, only two: Self-evident, meaning obvious once understood. (Anselm’s ontological proof goes here.) Or Clearly evident to the senses, which needs no expl.

Even believers might agree God is neither self-evident nor evident to the senses. So belief is irrational – right?

Hold button. Breathe. Press play. Believers respond in two ways. First, they can claim there is evidence for God. Intelligent Design types are here, who say the universe is too finely-tuned or life way too complex to deny God. Problem is, the march of time seems to fill in a lot of “gaps” where God used to be.

Second, they can say the test itself is flawed. In fact, before Hume and Kant, for long millenia, nobody’s faith hinged on any evidential test. Anselm would hardly have hung up his cassock if shown his “proof” was all wet. Even now, there can’t be a McDonald’s booth-full of believers who got faith from scientific evidence. Feels like the rules of boxing imposed on mixed martial arts, huh? Something’s off.

Force a modern gal, she’ll tell you her beliefs are based on premises derived from evidence. Push her, she’ll admit some of this evidence doesn’t come from her senses but from other people she’s got no reason to doubt, like actors, I mean, doctors. (This used to be called deferring to authority, but we don’t do that.)

We think our beliefs come from evidence that, if clearly seen by any sane person, would be shared. Right? But if post-modernists and magicians taught us anything, it’s that our minds are absurdly subjective and our senses second-rate. Example: Psychologists have shown that people routinely overestimate how important they are to the world to a laughable degree, yet in the immortal words of Journey, we don’t stop believing.

This story continues. The teepee stands another night. Whew.