At this time of year many people will read, or will have read in their presence, the following verses:
Matthew 1:23 Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).
Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Matthew 1:23 is of course a quote from Isaiah 7:14. Have you ever read all of Isaiah 7 and 8? The context is fascinating! Ahaz, king of Judah, has heard that Syria and Israel are planning to join forces and attack Judah. Ahaz isn't a good king, but Jehovah isn't ready for Judah to be destroyed, so the prophet Isaiah goes to him with a message.
Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign, but Ahaz doesn't think it's a good idea to ask God for signs. Isaiah says "He's going to give you one, anyway!" Then comes the famous prophecy. Isaiah goes on to say (verse 16) " before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted." So a child will be born and before he's old enough to know right from wrong, Syria and Israel will not even exist as kingdoms any more!
But the story continues in chapter 8. There, in verses 3 and 4, we see " 3 And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, 'Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz; 4 for before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.'"
Are you familiar with this? There, right in the next chapter, the prophecy is fulfilled! But wait! Was Isaiah's wife a virgin? Are there two virgin births in the Bible? Here's where it gets tricky.
I've discussed before how most of our Old Testament translations use the Masoretic Hebrew text as their source. The English Standard Version deviates from this in the case of Deuteronomy 32 because the Qumron text (aka "the Dead Sea Scrolls"), which are older, show the Septuagint (Greek language text used in the first century, which Jesus would have read from) to be correct. Well, Isaiah 7:14 is a place where every English version uses the Septuagint. The reason? That's what Matthew quoted. The actual Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 is almah, which means "young woman" (and possibly one that has never had a child). So Isaiah's wife wasn't a virgin, she was simply a young woman!
But wait again! Why, then, does Matthew say "virgin"? If you read the Wikipedia link in the last paragraph, you'll see that the Septuagint used the word parthenos, which means "virgin." But that Greek word changed meaning over time, as words do. It was probably a perfectly good word translation when the Septuagint originated, but over time the meaning changed from "young woman who has never had a child" to "virgin."
So there was never a prophecy that a virgin would be with child, but by the first century the Jews read this with the new meaning of the word and thought it must be about the messiah, since no virgin had ever borne a child. Somehow they ignored the context -- all of Isaiah 7 and 8 -- which shows the prophecy to have already been fulfilled. It couldn't have been fulfilled in their view, because they knew that Isaiah "went in" to his wife.
"Ah!" you say, "but what about chapter 9?"
"6For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upond his shoulder, and his name shall be callede Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. "
This indeed seems to be speaking of a messiah who will lead Judah to become a power and to create peace forever. But keep reading:
"8The Lord has sent a word against Jacob, and it will fall on Israel; 9and all the people will know, Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria, who say in pride and in arrogance of heart: 10“The bricks have fallen, but we will build with dressed stones; the sycamores have been cut down, but we will put cedars in their place.” 11But the Lord raises the adversaries of Rezin against him, and stirs up his enemies. 12The Syrians on the east and the Philistines on the west devour Israel with open mouth. For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still."
It's still referring to the fall of Israel, only a few years from the time the sign is given. Judah was to have a messiah who would bring peace. Israel and Syria would fall, Judah would rise, and no-one would ever defeat them. Well, Israel and Syria did, indeed, disappear, but Judah never became independent, and the child born to the prophet never turned out to be a messiah. Judah became subject to Greece, then to Rome, and later (ironically, after the one Christians believe to be the messiah came) they ceased to exist, as well.
Matthew 1:23 is the most foundational verse of the Gospel, the reason Christians in the first century (and today!) believed that Jesus was the messiah. (Actually, that's backwards. The story that Jesus was born of a virgin likely came about because people already believed that he was the messiah: Because they expected the messiah to be born of a virgin, a story arose about Mary and the Holy Spirit.) Yet the idea is predicated upon a word whose meaning had changed over the centuries. There is no Old Testament prophecy that the messiah would be born of a virgin... the whole foundation of Christianity is based on a mistaken belief by first century Jews. It's no wonder that today's Jews don't accept Jesus as the messiah... he doesn't fit what they find in their scriptures.
Do you still believe this story is about Jesus? If so, why?
In Genesis 1:26 we read "Then God said, 'let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'" Christian theology says that "us" refers to the Trinity -- the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The author of Colossians says (in 1:16) " For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him," implying that Jesus was there at the beginning. John 1:1-3 implies the same thing (while embracing the doctrine of the Logos, a topic for another time). While there are theologians who dispute the doctrine of the Trinity and claim that the New Testament doesn't support it, the fact that the New Testament claims that there is a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit seems indisputable. The idea that they are three yet somehow one is, admittedly, confusing, and the Nicene Creed says (for all practical purposes) it's implied, so just accept it without trying to understand! But it's easy for a Christian to see the "three" here and impose that upon Genesis.
As I've discussed before, the writers of the first books of the Bible were henotheistic. They believed that there were multiple gods, but that they were to worship only their god, Yahweh aka the LORD. Deuteronomy 32:8-9 makes it clear that the Most High god gave the nation of Israel to the LORD as an inheritance. The other gods got other nations as their own inheritance.
Christians impose the beliefs of New Testament times (and beliefs of today that may not even be consistent with the New Testament) upon the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible under the false belief that it must be 100% consistent. It isn't. The Hebrew Bible is it's own book and has been co-opted by Christians. This is unsurprising, since the New Testament church comprised, at first, Jews, and came out of Judaism. But the idea of "God" had evolved throughout the ages that the Old Testament spans, and the idea that there is only one god coalesced somewhere in the middle, by the time of the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. At that point, Baal had become a false god, rather than simply the god of another nation.
In Genesis 1, "us" means "the Most High God and the sons of God."
When you read the Bible, you need to read it to see what it actually says, rather than trying to force your beliefs on the whole thing. Christians claim that their beliefs come from the Bible, but the opposite is actually true: Christians start with their beliefs, then try to make the Bible fit. And it's not even the New Testament that they're starting with -- it's 21st Century beliefs. If you want to try to be Biblical in your beliefs, you're going to have to start at the beginning and read the book, noticing when the notions you have -- the things you've been taught your entire life and those you've come to believe over the years -- don't align with the text you're reading. If you won't do that, can you actually say that you're studying to show yourself approved, or that you're searching the scriptures to see what is true?
Revelation 22: 6-7 says
6 And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” 7 “And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”
Depending upon the theology taught by various churches, the visions in Revelation (most of the book, after the letters to the seven churches) may have to do with events that are still in the future as of today, or it may be that most of them were fulfilled when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, but some have yet to be fulfilled and it's hard to tell which are which.
Those who don't believe in pre-millennialism (the idea that the 1000 year reign is in the future) would say that Revelation is about Jesus using Rome to judge Israel for rejecting him. Others think it's about Jesus judging Rome itself for persecuting the Christians, and they're being encouraged that it'll happen in good time. Most evangelicals believe it's about a coming judgment -- the "rapture" of the saints and the remaining here on Earth of everybody else for 1000 years. One of the main arguments against pre-millennialism is the passage quoted above, where John sees Jesus saying he'll return soon. But verses 1-6 describe what's going to happen when Jesus comes. Verses 3-5, in particular, claim
3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
If that's about a future on Earth, it hasn't happened yet. If it's about Heaven, the final judgment hasn't happened yet, either. If it's about Rome, well, Rome was never destroyed, it just gradually lost power (ceding it to the Catholic church). If it's talking about the church, which some theology teaches is the kingdom, it's a miss because this vision does not describe life as a Christian today. The "servants will worship him" could be said to be true, since Christians do worship, but the "seeing his face" and "no more night" parts are not a part of today's Christian life.
Matthew 24 is a similarly debated passage. The part about the "abomination of desolation" is clearly about the temple being destroyed, and Jesus telling his followers to (literally) head for the hills. Then you get to verses 29-31 which say
29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
This is all supposed to happen immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem. In non-pre-millennial churches they'll tell you this part is still in the future, but the part before already happened. In pre-millennial churches they'll tell you that none of it has happened yet. So is the pre-millenialist's conclusion more logical? Well, no, because Jesus tells them that they, personally, will be delivered up to tribulation and be put to death at that time. and if it's 2000 years in the future, they can't be a part of it.
The truth is that both Matthew 24 and Revelation 22 present events that are supposed to happen within a very short time span. There's no room here for 2000+ years.
By the time II Peter was written, people were beginning to wonder why Jesus hadn't returned. No wonder! He clearly said it wouldn't be long! So Peter just says "a day with the LORD is as 1000 years and 1000 years as a day" -- in other words, "soon" doesn't mean the same thing to the LORD that it does to people. And besides, he just wants people to have time to repent.
I was in a Bible class the other night where Ezekiel was being studied (Ezekiel having been reinterpreted to be about the Christian age, because everything in the Old Testament is force-fit by Christianity into New Testament theology). Revelation 22 was referenced, so I highlighted verse 7 and made a note in my (phone app) Bible: "For sufficiently large values of 'soon'." That's a math joke. There are equations that can be said to be true only for sufficiently large values of a particular variable "n". In those cases, the equation wouldn't be true for small values of "n". There's an explanation here that's sort-of cryptic to me. I grasp the basic concept, but couldn't quickly find a clear explanation online. Anyway, my note here simply means that Jesus' statement in Revelation 22 is true only for sufficiently large values of the variable "soon." The problem there is that "soon" implies a small number and 2000+ years cannot be construed as "soon", Peter's "1000 years is as" comment notwithstanding.
Jesus' own words in Matthew 7:15-20 say that a prophet is known to be true or false by their fruits. The most obvious of the fruits you might know a prophet by is whether their prophecies come true. The prophecy in Revelation 22 (John's vision of Jesus' words) and Jesus' own prophecy in Matthew 24/Mark 13 failed. Period. Peter's readers were right to reject Christianity, because the religion's prophecies were and are false.
The flood survived by Noah's family and the animals they took onto the ark, was said to have wiped out all human and animal life on the Earth, to be started over by the inhabitants of that ark. Ironically, part of God's anger and reasoning for causing the flood were the Nephalim. In Genesis 6 we see that the race of Nephalim came along when the sons of god (El, not Yahweh) married the daughters of man and they bore children to them. It refers to them there as the "mighty men of old." In verse 5 God decides that this just isn't working out like he planned, so he starts preparing for Noah to build the ark so that he can try again.
So everybody's wiped out and mankind starts over with Noah and his family, right?
But wait! Centuries later (430 years, to be exact), after Israel has escaped Egypt and they're supposed to be getting ready to go into the land of promise, Moses sends 12 young men to have a look (Numbers 13). You are no doubt familiar with Joshua and Caleb, who end up leading Israel in the wilderness for 40 years while everyone else dies off. But who do the spies find in the land of Canaan that scare them so much? The Bible tells us that it's the Nephalim (verse 33). God went to all the trouble to flood the earth and wipe the people out, and the main ones he wanted to get rid of, these half-human half-god creatures, it turns out that their descendants are still around all these years later!
By this time, God Most High is gone and Jehovah his son is god of Israel, so he's stuck dealing with them. It'll be another 1500 years or so before Jesus, the son of Jehovah and the grandson of God Most High, comes on the scene. By that time, not only do the Nephalim seem to be gone, we see in Psalm 82 that Jehovah's brothers have lost their deity and have probably died.
The Bible is so much more interesting when you read what it actually says, instead of what they tell you in church. The Old Testament is a lot more interesting when you don't try to impose the New Testament on it. Seriously, this is almost as interesting as Norse mythology! Marvel needs to adapt these stories!
But we're the ONE TRUE CHURCHTM! We have to save them from Hell!
I still go to a Church of Christ for reasons that I've explained before. They would consider me a "struggling christian," I suppose, because I was outed as an atheist and managed to convince them that I was going to try to believe again. In the year and a half since that happened, nobody has questioned me. I kind of hate it but it keeps family relationships smooth.
Anyway, being that I'm still a member, I'm still on the email list. Monday, the following email (names redacted) was sent to the congregation:
This was out of the blue. We weren't there Sunday night, so I have to assume that an announcement was made. This couple are not members of our congregation!
James 5:20 is the verse that says if you turn a sinner from the error of their ways you'll save them from death and cover a multitude of your own sins (and I thought God didn't keep score!).
So, two hours later:
As I said, this couple are not members of our congregation; yet this elder, in his concern for their "souls" (they've joined the Catholic church! We have to get them back to the Lord's church!) published their email addresses, phone numbers, and home address to the entire congregation (everyone on the email list, anyway). You can see the polite reaction of the man, saying essentially that they don't want to be bothered, they just want to figure this out, and that their searching for the truth is long overdue. I doubt they would sue, but if contact from people they've never met becomes a big enough hassle, they might be seriously tempted.
I don't know how this happened, but I would speculate that the woman mentioned as having received the text must have been really worried about her friends from another congregation, and brought her concerns to her own church, asking for prayers, and the elder(s) decided it would be good to be proactive. (After all, nothing fails like prayer.) I'm just guessing, here. It could easily have been someone else asking for prayers, and this woman just happened to follow up. People in the NI-Churches of Christ know a lot of people in other local congregations. (I'm surprised I don't know this couple; I would bet that my sons and their wives do, though.) I don't know if I'll ask anyone how this came about or maybe just leave that up to my wife. I try to be as uninvolved as possible.
But I'd like to send this couple a card congratulating them on their decision to pursue their doubts and try to figure out the truth!
"The Bible isn't like any other book!" When someone is trying to convince you that the god they call "God" is real, that Jesus was/is this god's son and is deity himself, and that you should reconsider the things that made you finally conclude, after months or years of intense Bible study, that there's nothing to the religion after all (after having been a believer since you were old enough to believe anything at all), this is one of the arguments they often think you can't possibly have an answer to.
So, let's look at that argument. Is the Bible unlike any other book?
This post, an article called "Why Reading the Bible Straight Through is Usually a Bad Idea," makes the point the the Bible is unlike any other book because it isn't actually a book, it's more like a library. That's true, but it isn't a reason to believe it. In fact, as the article points out, "the books have different genres, written in different styles with different purposes." What's more, the books were written over many years by people who had different beliefs about the nature of God.
You've no doubt heard the statement (made by the folks at "Answers in Genesis" here) that "despite forty authors writing from three continents over nearly two thousand years, it maintains a perfect consistency of message" (or something similar). The usual scripture that Biblical inerrantists like to use is 2 Tim. 3:16-17: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." They interpret this to mean that everything from Genesis to Revelation is 100% true and 100% consistent. They assert that because this god is omniscient and omnipresent, he could have made it that way, and therefore he would have.
This post on cfaith.com states that explicitly. And unlike the first article linked above, if this reason it's unlike any other book were true, it would be a reason to believe it and to be a Christian. But is it true?
The books of the Bible comprise something more than just different genres with different purposes. They comprise a range of beliefs, showing us how the beliefs of the various "inspired" authors (in the Old Testament, the spiritual leaders of the nation of Israel, and in the New Testament the proponents of Christianity) changed over the centuries. Inerrantists try to impose the ideas in the New Testament upon the Old Testament, but those ideas don't really fit. In fact, the Old Testament itself shows quite a bit of evolution of beliefs from the beginning to the end.
Take the ideas of eternal reward and eternal punishment: This is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. We see Enoch and Elijah being taken up and never dying, but other than that, there's nothing about people going to be with God. Nothing in the Law of Moses or in the books of the prophets threatens the Children of Israel with eternal punishment if they're unfaithful. The only threat is that their nation will be taken away from them. We see a few non-specific mentions where someone who died is said to have gone to "be with their fathers" (referring to the burial place in their homeland, not to the hereafter), and David, when the child of Bathsheba dies, says "he can't come to me, but I will go to him," but we can't infer that the place he thought he would go to was Heaven. In fact, when the witch of Endor summons Samuel (I Samuel 28), Samuel comes up, not down. Up from where? The "underworld" seems the most likely place, as most ancient people believed there was a place that departed spirits went that was below the Earth. That's what the Hebrew word Sheol means. Both the good and the evil were thought by the Israelites to go there when they die.
This is wholly inconsistent with the New Testament. Somewhere between Malachi and Matthew, the Jews picked up a belief in not only being rewarded by going to live in Heaven, but of the possibility of being punished eternally in Hell. The Sadducees did not believe this: This article from Britannica.com states "the Sadducees refused to go beyond the written Torah (first five books of the Bible) and thus, unlike the Pharisees, denied the immortality of the soul, bodily resurrection after death, and the existence of angelic spirits." We see this in the Bible as well. In their view, the idea of life after death was unscriptural! But it was widely believed in the first century, and thus became part of Christian doctrine. We can clearly see that this is a change in doctrine from the beginning to the end of the Bible.
My favorite example of evolution of beliefs is that found in the "Song of Moses" in Deuteronomy 32. Here we see how the Children of Israel believed that The LORD came to be their god. You should read this in the English Standard Version because it uses older manuscripts as its source than most other Bible translations. It states there that the Most High god divided the people of the Earth into nations -- one nation for each of his sons -- and that "The LORD's portion" were the descendants of Jacob. In other words, they believed at that time that The LORD (probably "Yahweh" originally) was one of the sons of the Most High god. He was far superior to his brothers, who ruled the other nations, but at this time he was not believed to be the only god. The belief that The LORD was the only god, and the same as The Most High, came later, and you can see this change in beliefs as you read through the Bible. In fact, in Psalm 82 we see these other sons of God losing their divinity and being told that they will eventually die. They can't lose their divinity if they never had it!
An interesting thing in the case of Deuteronomy 32 is that when the Masoretic text was compiled (600-1000 AD, not BC), the scribes/scholars changed the wording here! (Most Bible translations use the Masoretic text as their Old Testament source, so compare any other version with the ESV.) Why would they do this? Well I wouldn't suggest that they were being dishonest. They may well have thought that the phrase "sons of God" was an idiom. After all, they didn't believe that Yahweh had sons, so they tried to figure out what the original author meant. They came up with "children of Israel." In making the assumption that the original wording represented an idiom, they unknowingly imposed their 7th century beliefs upon the ancient text. They tried to force the entire library that is the Bible to be consistent, but it wasn't.
There are many other examples of inconsistencies in the Bible, not just differences between the beginning and end, but irreconcilable differences within just the Gospels which were written within a period of only 40 to 60 years. These that I've pointed out are enough to prove that the claim of the inerrantist is false.
There's a tendency by inerrantists to blame the reader for not being able to ignore the contradictions, as in this article, which states " if we cannot resolve a difficulty, that is a problem with our understanding, not a problem with the Bible." The truth is that there is often no way around the discrepancies. The truth is that there are prophecies in the Bible that didn't come true, such as the conquering of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar in Ezekiel 26 -- Nebuchadnezzar besieged Tyre for 13 years but failed to take it. The outline linked here is from a Biblical inerrantist who explains in section IV that Nebuchadnezzar failed, but in section V dismisses this failure and states that the specifics of the prophecy eventually all came true. If they weren't fulfilled by the one prophesied to do it, then the prophecy was wrong. Of course, this isn't a book written by Ezekiel, it's a book written about Ezekiel. This is a story about a prophecy, written many years later. The error here is that the author got his history wrong, not that an actual prophet predicted an event that failed to come true.
The truth is that the Gospels contradict each other. In John 20, Mary Magdalene tells Peter and John that someone has taken Jesus' body out of the tomb, and the two of them run to the tomb to see that it is empty. In Luke 24 the women were told, right there at the tomb, that Jesus had risen. They go tell the 11 remaining apostles, and Peter runs to the tomb to see. Both stories cannot be true, and it is not a failure of the reader to understand. These stories are very clear!
There is a sense in which the Bible is unlike other books, but it isn't true in the claimed way, and that should be enough for anyone who has believed this to change their mind. Perhaps it doesn't mean they would no longer believe in this god, but they certainly ought to change their views about the nature of the Bible and their religion. Most Christians are not fundamentalists. Those who are need to learn that Fundamentalist Christianity is based on assertions about the Bible that are demonstrably false, and then begin to search for the truth. Whether that leads them to mainline Christianity or to the belief that Judaism and Christianity are simply mythology like all of the other religions that are practiced now or are long dead, they'll be better off.
And there it is... a guilt trip masquerading as sympathy.
My wife's name appears in the church bulletin every week (email only, not printed). She's on the list of people who have health conditions that often prevent them from being at church. She has fibromyalgia, and insomnia, too, and she doesn't "do mornings." Doctor appointments are always scheduled in the afternoon. We don't have service people come to the house in the morning, either. That just doesn't work.
This is a 3-times-a-week church: Sunday morning, Sunday night (the majority of the people at that service were also there in the morning), and Wednesday night. My wife doesn't often make it Sunday morning, but she's usually there Sunday night. She's on the list because she wants to make sure people understand that there's a reason she's only there on Sunday night, and so they won't think she's just a "weak Christian."
The church has four "encouragement groups" that occasionally get together at someone's house for a meal, but mostly what they do is meet after the Sunday night service once a month and sign cards to be mailed. When my sister died, I got one card from an individual, and one card from one of these groups. This is a church with about 200 people in attendance on a typical Sunday morning.
My wife gets a card from one of the groups about once a month. Usually the notes say something like "we've been missing you." The thing is, if they were paying attention they wouldn't be missing her, because she's usually there on Sunday night. They have to walk right past her to get to the card-signing session! And she doesn't leave in a hurry once church is over, either. She's one of the last people to leave. She gets cards, but what she never gets are phone calls from people asking if she'd like them to come visit, or perhaps bring some food over, or if she's feeling up to it, to go to lunch, or even just calling to have a friendly conversation. Just cards.
The last card she got had a note from a person that really shows the purpose of these things: It's a guilt trip. While most people say they miss her and hope she starts feeling better, and that they're praying for her, this person wrote "We hope you'll be able to encourage us with your presence soon!" That's Church-of-Christ thinking. If you're not there, then gee-whiz, someone else may notice that, get discouraged, and not show up next week! You wouldn't want that on your conscience, would you?
Of course, I already know that they think this way, but it was funny to see someone actually put it in writing on one of these "thinking of you" cards.
From a Church of Christ preacher's post on Facebook:
"Even an atheist doesn't want to be punched in the face. If there is no God, then there are no moral absolutes. Yet 'no one ever hates his own flesh, but provides and cares for it' (Ephesians 5>29, HCSB). This instinct for self-preservation is the basest, most universal expression of self-love. Atheism cannot explain why or how people know it is wrong for others to hurt them."
I don't know that I've ever seen a more ignorant statement. We'll disregard the mistaken idea that atheism attempts to explain anything and just deal with what he says here. Is he saying that if there were no god to give us moral absolutes, we wouldn't know that we need to respond to a punch in the face? Yes, that's exactly what he's saying. While atheism doesn't explain things, the need for self-preservation is one of the most basic drivers of evolution. And even more obvious: We can feel pain! He's saying that without a god to give us moral absolutes, we woudn't have the urge to retaliate because we wouldn't understand that the other person had no right to cause us injury.
Christianity, on the other hand, eschews the idea of self-love. Christianity says "turn the other cheek" when someone punches you. (And while there may be expedient reasons for doing so, it is not our nature.) That instinct for self-preservation is anti-Christian.
To top it off, the absolute statement that no one ever hated their own flesh is false, as well. It may be true that most people do not hate themselves, but it is not true that no-one hates themselves.
He goes on to say "the universal law of 'ought' shows 'the work of the Law written in their hearts' (Romans 2:15), which points to a universal lawgiver." Again, this is a statement that sounds "thoughty" but which turns out to be shallow, what Daniel Dennett refers to as a "deepity". Yes, we have a sense of right and wrong, but if a person thinks this wouldn't have evolved, they don't really know much about evolution or about memetics. Organisms live to reproduce if they have a way of defending themselves. Societies thrive if the members of the society defend one another. The Bible even says so: Ecclesiastes 4:12 -- " And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken." That's memetics in a nutshell, right in their own "holy" book! When people started farming, when they became stationary and began to live in communities, writing was developed and rules were written down. Communities where everyone pitched in to hunt and farm, and for defense, thrived. And while selfish individuals never disappeared and could actually thrive within a community, the community itself had to comprise mostly altruistic individuals in order to thrive, which resulted in our current mix of individuals today, comprising mostly altruistic people with some selfish people in the mix.
This isn't hard, but if you start by saying there's a creator and that you must base all of your beliefs on that, then you have to come up with deepities to allow yourself to continue without experiencing significant cognitive dissonance, and you never think you need to find the truth or question your beliefs. You're looking for a quick and dirty "answer" that doesn't have to be a real answer at all, just a place for you to stop thinking about the subject. If you start with the real world and try to understand why things are the way they are using forensics, you'll always have unanswered questions and you'll sometimes have to change your beliefs, but you'll generally be on the right track and there will be a lot that you can know for certain. But you never stop thinking about the subject because you have a thirst for knowledge.
We had a blow-up last night. Maybe I overreacted. She was reading some apologetics stuff and wanting to order a book from Amazon with a title something like "100 OT Prophecies Fulfilled By Jesus," but it was only sold as a used book by 3rd party sellers, and there were actually a couple of different books and a tract with the same title but different authors. She hadn't ordered anything via Amazon by 3rd party sellers before, so it confused her and she was asking me about it. No problem -- happy to help her find what she's looking for.
Then she hit me with "do you know about the prophecy about Bethlehem Ephrathah?" Well, I've read that stuff before and don't specifically remember what I've read about that, so I wasn't prepared to answer. I don't remember what transpired, exactly, but it ended up with me feeling like I just couldn't stand to be there. We've been married 36 years and I've never felt that way before. She has packed her bags a few times, a couple of them when the kids were in elementary school, but I thought she was just doing it as a threat. I talked her out of leaving those times. Last night I found out that it was real.
I don't want to have those discussions. She's truly afraid that if I die I'll wind up in Hell, so she sees the discussions as imperative. I get that -- I used to believe. But I go to church (more often than she does) and I live my life as if I am still a Christian. I actually told her that if "God" were real and if he would send a person to Hell who lives like a Christian, simply because that person doesn't really believe in him, then that's an evil god. She just keeps thinking "what if I can point out something you weren't aware of that will make you change your mind?" (Her words.)
I didn't want to leave because I was angry; it was because I could not bear the conversation and I could not bear to be there at that moment. I'm not sure I can explain the difference, but it was not because of anger. It was more of an empty feeling, like I didn't belong there. I got a suitcase down and took a couple of items off of hangers, thinking I would spend the night at a nearby hotel. Interestingly, she didn't try to talk me out of it. But we talked about what had just happened and I didn't pack anything. Somehow we both managed to sleep all night.
Today I called her while on my lunch break and she apologized. I told her again that I understood where she was coming from. I do! But I don't know if it's possible for her to see where I'm coming from.
So once or twice a year we have these blow-ups. I cannot say everything I'm thinking. One of our sons is a non-believer and it tears her up to think that his daughter might grow up to be a non-believer as well, even though they're taking her to church at the moment. What I didn't say was that I doubt that our preacher-son's kids will still believe by the time they're 30. There's just very little chance of that in today's world, because no matter how much you teach them your version of the Bible stories and try to teach them not to investigate outside of apologetics material, once they're grown they'll probably find out the truth. That's the risk you take if you're a fundamentalist.
Come to think of it, the atheist son and his wife are going to a Presbyterian church (my wife doesn't know that), and if they don't teach a literalist version of the Bible, it could be that that grandchild will grow up to be a Christian and the others will deconvert at some point.
Anyway, the blow-up is over and I expect a long period of time without any of that discussion. It just takes a few days for my heart to stop pounding.
I'm 58 years old, and it was right at 6 years ago that I realized that the religious book I had believed since I was old enough to understand anything was, in fact, a book of myths, legends, and embellished history, and that even if there were any such things as gods, Yahweh certainly wasn't real.
It's been interesting, in some ways great, in some ways awfully stressful. I've kept quiet for the most part, but have managed to beg off of responsibilities at church and I've cut my contribution way down, skipping writing the check most weeks and writing a small one when I feel like I need to be seen. Staying in the closet seems to require only modest effort.
I was outed a year ago and at first thought that might be a good thing, but I quickly found out it wasn't going to fly with my minister son. The "outing" was an indirect result of my other son's deconversion. The two of them are sometimes cordial to one another and sometimes, not so much. Family members are hard on the atheist. He even went forward at church and "repented" just to get people off of his back and so that his wife's brother wouldn't shun him, but he's going to the "wrong" church, so people are still critical. But I think it's working for him, and I'm happy about that. I just wish that minister son didn't care.
And once in a while my wife starts to worry about my "soul", so we have a day or two of uncomfortable conversations. The problem there is that she thinks I can be converted. I can't really participate in the discussion without making her mad and having her accuse me of thinking I"m smarter than other people, so I generally just refuse to have the discussion. It blows over for awhile, then a few months later it pops up again.
But we love each other and care about each other, and neither of us is about to throw away 36 years of marriage, shared experiences, and future experiences which include visiting grandchildren.
I do hope that minister son gets a real job in a couple of years. Who knows, maybe Bible-study-induced cognitive dissonance will cause him to become an atheist! I would say that's too much to hope for, but that's what happened to atheist son and it took me completely by surprise.
So while there's some stress involved in being in the closet, it really isn't that hard to keep up appearances to the extent that no one is on my back, and I know it's all bullshit so none of it bothers me. Sometimes the sermons or Bible classes make me mad because they're so ridiculous, but most Sunday mornings I'm there by myself due to my wife's various health problems, and I sit there and read books on my phone. It's a good way to sneak in some "me time."
When atheist son is with us he doesn't sing or bow his head during the prayers, and this upsets my wife. He's not very diligent about being half-closeted (hehe)! Can't say I blame him, but I find it easier to have my wife wonder if maybe I still do believe. When she's there, I sing quietly, and bow my head even if my eyes are open during most of the prayer. Doesn't hurt me any.
And while I do get mad at the religious nuts who are running the country today, I think their time is running out. The younger generation is going to make this country a better place unless they become conservatives when they get older. Even if they become more conservative, I doubt they'll ever be religious nuts the way my generation has turned out to be.
The simple fact that I know that Christianity is bogus makes my life better, even if I do have to make accommodations for the believers around me. That's worth celebrating. (Quietly. In my own mind. And here among other ex-Christians.)
A woman I knew in high school in the 1970s, and who was ordained as a Methodist minister a few years ago, posted some photos on Facebook of a trip she took to Israel a few years ago. Along with the photos, she commented "The prayer that never fails, 'Thy will be done.'"
I would call that "the ultimate salve for cognitive dissonance". In "the Lord's prayer" Jesus reputedly said "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven."
James 4:13-16 says " 13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. "
In Mark 11 Jesus is said to have claimed that if a person has faith, they can tell a mountain to move and God will make it happen. In James, it is said that if you're sick and you call the elders to pray for you, you'll get well. These promises don't have caveats (except for a lack of faith in the first one). Ask for it, and as long as you have faith it will happen -- period!
But when people add "if it's your will" (or, more likely the antiquated English phrase "if it be thy will"), they provide an "out." This "out" isn't for their god, but for themselves. If they add "if it be thy will" then when it doesn't happen, they don't have to wonder why their god didn't keep his promise. They can just say "I suppose it must not have been God's will." Between that and "God's ways are higher than man's ways" they give themselves a way to ignore the fact that the relationship between saying prayers and things actually happening is completely random. There's no positive correlation unless people are praying for things that are likely. There's no negative correlation unless they're praying for things that are unlikely. Saying "thy will be done" allows them to count the "hits" and ignore the "misses."
The terms "Postdiction" and "Hindsight Bias" usually refer to the way psychics go back after the fact and "prove" their abilities by telling you about the things they got right, but it applies to prayer even better, because with prayer, the believer has been taught ahead of time that if what they are praying for doesn't happen, it's not because there's nobody listening -- it's because it just wasn't what their god thought best. You've no doubt heard the expression that some unfortunate person "can't win for losing." Well, people's gods can't lose for winning!
Recent studies have shown that when people are shown statistics, they will often dig in their heels regarding their false beliefs. That being the case, how would you go about showing a Christian or other religious person that "thy will be done" is an evolutionary adaptation of their religion to keep itself replicating throughout the ages?
It seems so obvious from the outside.
Ah, life in the closet! Fodder for blog posts!
Sunday morning's sermon was called "Motivations for Holy Conduct." Sermons usually have 3 main points, and number three, which the most time was spent on, was "The Wrath of God."
This was pretty ironic, because I spend my time during the sermon reading in the Nook app on my phone. Right now I'm reading "The God Delusion," and I'm in chapter 7, "The 'Good' Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist". Part of the chapter deals with the wrath of this supposed god.
So while the preacher is droning on about how afraid we ought to be of going to Hell, and therefore motivated to do good, I'm reading a chapter that directly dismantles these arguments.
The wrath of Yahweh presented in the Bible has him bringing about natural disasters, or instructing the Jewish army to perpetrate war crimes (killing all men, women, and children, except for virgins, whom they could take home and rape), or punishing the wrong people -- Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister instead of his wife (twice), and the kings who take her into their harems are punished, rather than Abraham, who told the lie because he was afraid they'd kill him to take her if they knew she was his wife. Yahweh also gets really upset when Israel or Judah starts to follow one of his brothers, such as Baal. He'll wipe out a bunch of people just because he's jealous. It even says his name is "Jealous!"
Many modern theologians would protest that these stories are just metaphors for something. Of course, I'm in a fundamentalist church, so the preacher insists that these stories are real. Regardless, there's no moral lesson in these passages. The god depicted is capricious, unfair, and just plain evil.
The Old Testament in no way depicts modern morality, even though fundamentalists portray the book as being 100% consistent from beginning to end. This god of the Old Testament was ruthless and evil, and if he were real, we certainly would be afraid of his wrath, and on pins and needles because we would never know what little thing we do in ignorance might piss him off.
In the New Testament, we're supposedly forgiven because Jesus suffered in our place. The only thing is, "salvation" seems to be a sort-of light switch, constantly turning off and on. If I mess up, I'm headed for Hell until I repent. Not that anyone would directly say that, but it's implied in every sermon.
I suppose the most ironic thing about this "motivator for being holy" is that it's entirely fear based. God, in this picture, is an abuser. He's irrationally angry and will send you to eternal punishment ("where the worm dieth not") for really minor infractions, and for things that are considered sinful for no logical reason. It isn't a "works salvation," but it is. You can't earn salvation, but you have to try. You can be a really good person, do all of the things Yahweh insists upon, and still go to Hell because, well, works don't really count -- thought crimes will get you. Your church has an organ! Sorry, you're going to Hell! Oh, you thought you were saved before your were baptized? Sorry, your obedience doesn't count... off to Hell for you, too!
Illogical. But we aren't supposed to trust our own judgment, we're supposed to figure out what this inconsistent book is trying to tell us.
In Ron Reagan's FFRF ad, he concludes by saying "Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in Hell." When I first heard that I wasn't sure about its effectiveness, because to Christians this would sound arrogant. But the truth is that there's no reason to be afraid of burning in Hell. There's no reason to fear the wrath of a mythological being. In my imaginary conversations with Christians, I would ask them if they were afraid that Zeus would strike them with lightning. Their answer, of course, would be "no." Why? "Because Zeus isn't real." But aren't you afraid that he'll strike you with lightning for saying he isn't real? "Well, no, because he can't, because he isn't real!" Exactly! Yahweh can't send me to Hell because he isn't real. He can't get mad at me for saying he isn't real, because he isn't real! If you aren't afraid of Greek gods, you shouldn't be afraid of Hebrew gods, either.
Oh, the joys of being semi-closeted! I knew I'd hear some ridiculous stuff after hurricane Harvey hit our area.
My wife's sister and her husband lost their home. They're insured, but the house was paid off and they intended to live in it until their kids told them they were too old to be on their own. It's going to be a multiple-months long headache rebuilding. They're with us for the moment, and she was in Walmart the other day waiting for the next self-check register when the woman ahead of her randomly spouted off that she thought all of the events had been good for us, because it brought us all together. My sister-in-law replied that her house was literally under water, and she didn't think that whatever social impact it may have had was worth it.
Of course, that wasn't a Christiany opinion that the woman had, just a generally clueless one.
Then there's the facebook share of an article claiming that this must have been a miracle, because only about 60 lives were lost and with a flood this size you might have expected 1000 or more. So, what, your god underestimated the number of angels he needed to save people, and sent 60 too few? Or maybe 59 too few, because that husband and wife in Katy -- the husband was a beloved pastor -- could have been saved with the help of only one angel. Tell the families of those 60 people that this was a miracle. What a wimpy god you folks believe in!
And then there was church Sunday night. In churches of Christ they don't believe in miracles, but they do believe in divine providence (which really is just miracles that aren't obvious). So the preacher was talking about "the chastening of the Lord" and about how sometimes problems are the Lord's chastening, and sometimes they aren't. He talked about how ol' Yahweh said that Satan had incited him against Job, even though Satan was the one doing the work. So Yahweh sort-of took credit for the actions of Satan. The conclusion of the lesson was that it's impossible to tell whether it was random chance, the work of Satan but allowed by God, or the work of God himself trying to bring about some eternal good, but that we should use it to strengthen our faith. Because what really matters is salvation, of course, eternal life, not this temporary life on this wild and woolly planet Earth.
I wonder when people say things like that if there's any cognitive dissonance. Or maybe it's evidence that he's found a way to get rid of the cognitive dissonance. But I don't think he knows what he said, which is that is that it's impossible to tell the difference in a world with this kind of god in charge and in a world without one. There are no obvious happenings that would show us that there are invisible helpers (or invisible hinderers). Church-of-Christ folks know this, yet they still believe!
My sister-in-law and her husband have been going through a lot in the last few years, and just a week ago a major difficulty in their life was worked out. They thought they were finally going to get some rest. For one day. She basically said that she figured she'd learned enough patience, and didn't need any more training. I think maybe she has some doubts. But she'll shove them down and get on with her life, and continue practicing her mythology. They'll continue to live a life where they take care of way more than their share of their own and other people's burdens, and never see that it's they who are "angels," not any invisible beings. They'll attribute their own strength to the help of this invisible being, despite the clear evidence in their own lives that that god doesn't exist.
Mark Twain supposedly said "Faith is believin' what you know ain't so." Peter Boghossian, in "A Manual for Creating Atheists," insists that faith is pretending to know things that you don't know. And he insists that other definitions of faith, for example faith in a person's ability to do something, are not really faith, because they're based on your knowledge of the person's ability and history. I think he's wrong to say that this definition of the word is invalid, because it's certainly how it's used most of the time. What he's trying to do is get people to see that that sort of faith does not equal faith in the Biblical sense. That's true -- it's a different thing, and perhaps it gives people who have religious faith (belief in gods and spirits and miracles) some reason to think that their faith is reasonable, because the same word has a meaning that reflects faith justified by evidence.
But what does the Bible actually say? Well, most everyone has heard the verse: Hebrews 11:1 -- "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Christians (and many non-Christians) can quote this off the top of their heads. But what does it actually mean? It is the Biblical definition of faith. What is it getting at?
This verse begins the passage often referred to as the "Hall of Faith." The Hebrew writer goes on to talk about what certain Old Testament heroes did because they had faith. Generally speaking, the point is that they couldn't see the future things that their god had promised them, but they believed it anyway, and acted accordingly. The story of Joseph is that on his deathbed he gave instructions that when Israel would leave Egypt, they should take his bones with them to the land of promise. They weren't even in captivity yet. There weren't enough of them to be a nation yet. But he believed that his descendants would eventually go to the land that their god had promised them, and he wanted to be buried there.
So let's break that definition down. "The substance of things hoped for." If you're hoping for something but you don't have it, have never seen it, and nobody has ever seen it, then there is no "substance" to it. Faith takes the place of substance, allowing the believer to, well, believe. "The evidence of things not seen." This is essentially redundant. What is evidence? Evidence is the set of facts, observations about either physical specimens or the leftover effects of physical processes, that lead one to believe a certain thing exists, or a certain event happened. But "evidence of things not seen" implies belief without what would normally lead to belief.
To put it more succinctly, faith is a substitute for substance, and a substitute for evidence. So Boghossian's definition fits the Bible definition here. Twain, of course, was jesting. People don't know that what they have faith in isn't really so, but his statement is a way to call attention to the fact that Biblical faith allows people to believe things that they can't possibly know, and, in fact, to believe things that are demonstrably false. There's no dome above the Earth, as early Bible passages describe. The Universe is 13.8 billion years old, not the 6000-10000 you would calculate using the Bible, and it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Hebrew writer was trying to assure his readers that there is an afterlife. There's no evidence for this at all, so in order to believe it one must accept that the New Testament writers knew it to be true. Yet the Hebrew writer himself has no confidence other than faith -- he substitutes faith for evidence, and even tells us that's what he's doing. Not very confidence inspiring, is it?
This isn't a blog post, really, just a place for a couple of bookmarks.
I follow Captain Cassidy on Twitter, who writes the blog "Roll to Disbelieve" on patheos. She recently tweeted a link to an older blog post of her own called The Four Facts of the Resurrection (Aren’t)
Here, she discusses how four "facts" about the resurrection that even non-believers don't dispute, aren't facts at all, aren't well attested, and are certainly not accepted by non-believers. These facts are:
And in that post, she links a site discussion the lack of ancient sources that reference Jesus. That site discusses what Christian apologists call the 10 / 42 argument, which claims that there are more ancient attestations of Jesus than there are for Tiberius Caesar. Not surprisingly, this turns out to be not even remotely true. Find that web page here: Ten Reasons to Reject the Apologetic 10/42 Source Slogan
Update: I think I'll use this post for interesting links. Here's one from Bob Seidensticker's blog Cross Examined about the ancient "combat myths" of the creation, and how the Bible actually describes Israel's version, even though Christians don't recognize it. (These are considered "difficult passages" because they don't agree with Christian belief, so Christians just write them off as "difficult".) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2017/02/combat-myth-the-curious-story-of-yahweh-and-the-gods-who-preceded-him-2/
Here's the Wikipedia entry on Yahweh explaining where he came from. Seems he wasn't originally an Canaanite god, but may have come from Egypt. I need to read more about this. Israel was Canaanite nation, worshiping "El" (IsraEL), El having had 70 sons (among whom Baal is the most prominent). Yahweh was eventually conflated with El. I'm not sure how this works with Deuteronomy 32 (though that passage is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry).
Hebrew henotheism: https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/henotheism.htm
Here's an article about the declining numbers of Church-of-Christ affiliated students in Church-of-Christ affiliated colleges.
New link, 26 November 2018: A post by David Madison on John Loftus' "Debunking Christianity" called The Christian Dark Ages -- Then and Now. Among the interesting insights here is the fact that during the 500 year period between the fall of the Roman empire and the end of the Dark Ages, a great deal of the knowledge accumulated by the Greeks and the Romans was literally erased and written over, and had to be re-learned hundreds of years later. The result of their following the advice to take no care for worldly things, because their Father in Heaven would take care of them (advice from Matthew 6 in the Sermon on the Mount), is that the world population plummeted: Millions of people starved to death. Villages disappeared and large cities became mere villages. The knowledge needed to sustain the population had simply been forgotten.
I posted in the forums about how my older son discovered the truth about the Bible after he decided he really needed to study more. He had managed to come out of the closet and, he thought, not destroy his relationships. Well, it turned out to be more complicated than that, and it got really complicated for me, as well.
My son and his wife had a baby. They live in another town, and his in-laws live there, as well. So we went to see meet new granddaughter. They weren't at church that Sunday, and in fact left the hospital for home about the time of the evening service. My wife and I went to church. We noticed my son's father-in-law looking what we thought was his usual odd self. We didn't really want to talk to him because even though our son was accepted as a "visitor" and "former member" by the church, his father-in-law is one of the "church discipline" types who thinks you can't have anything at all to do with any Christian who is "living in sin," and that being a Christian who has rejected God is "living in sin." (In other words, there's no such thing as an "ex-Christian." If you leave, you're an "erring Christian.")
So when it was over we answered a few questions about the baby for the people who were asking and congratulating us, and then we made our way to the car. We planned to pick up dinner and take it to our son's house. But father-in-law went out a side door and intersected our path! As he approached, making a bee-line for me, my wife congratulated him on the new granddaughter, which interrupted his train of thought. He turned to her and shook her and and said "you -- congratulations!" Then he turned to me, refusing my hand, and said "and you... I KNOW YOUR SECRET." I replied "ohhhh kay?" and we proceeded to the car.
Boy, was my wife mad. I was shocked. How in hell did he know I was an atheist? It was a tough night, but I didn't really know that anything would come of it. Our son already had a chilly relationship with him.
The following Wednesday night I went to Bible class, and as usually, afterwards took our older granddaughter outside to play. But a little while later one of the elders came out and found me, and asked if they could speak with me. I took my granddaughter to our other son and told him the elders wanted to see me, then I went to the room they were meeting in. Only two of the three were there. One of them said to me, quite sheepishly, really, that they had been told I had a blog called "The Closet Atheist." Well, of course, that was true, but in my shock I was able to act shocked enough to deny it and, I thought, seem believable. I asked what it was, and he started to explain to me what a blog was. When I said, no, I understood that, he told me how there were pages and pages of posts dating back several years. After attempting to deny it, they said that they weren't inclined to believe it, but that they felt they had to ask.
I wandered out in a daze and went home. My wife hadn't gone that night and I didn't say anything to her. She was unaware of the blog.
So, I need to back up a bit. When my son first indicated that he was doubting, he also implied that his wife was kind-of on board with him. That was wishful thinking. In an effort to be supportive (and, frankly, because I was so happy for him) I told him about the blog, and even said he could tell his wife about it. I wanted her to know that even if they didn't agree, that didn't mean he wasn't the person she married, and it didn't mean their marriage was over. The baby's birth was four month's away at this point, and it really seemed important that she not suffer any undue stress. In reality, the realization that there are no such things as gods shouldn't cause anything but joy in one's life, but when you have fundamentalist family, it isn't simple at all. I wanted to help.
But his wife really still believed, and she's not one to keep secrets, so when conversing and seeking advice from her parents, she mentioned my blog.
Later in the week the elders emailed me wanting to meet again. I had to tell her now, and she yelled at me about how naive I had been. She's never been more right. I trust people. My daughter-in-law loves me. She wasn't trying to sabotage me or betray me, yet that's exactly what she did. My honesty plus hers combined to start an avalanche.
I didn't know whether to be relieved or scared to death. My younger son and his family were moving... that Wednesday was to be the last one at this church, and they were headed on a vacation/journey to a new home on the West Coast. They left before I could talk to him. Right here -- this is it. The ONLY reason I cared whether anyone knew I was an atheist is because I was afraid it would affect my relationship with this younger son, and that he wouldn't want his daughter to be around me much. That's it. That's the only real negative that could happen in my life. And if that happened, my wife would never forgive me. Literally, not metaphorically, never forgive me.
The blog was somewhat cryptic, in the sense that if someone had stumbled across it they wouldn't have suspected it was mine. Yet there was enough information in there that if someone said it was mine, and someone else read it, I wouldn't be able to deny it, so before my meeting with the elders I decided I'd better come clean. I admitted it was mine, and I said that I would go before the congregation and ask for forgiveness. I took the blog down before sending the email. I also said that I would begin a Bible study via email with a preacher who was well educated, but a member of a "mainline" church rather than one of the non-institutional groups. (My thinking was that this would keep the rumor mill quiet. I didn't have to tell that preacher what was behind it, and he wouldn't have any discussions with "our" preachers.)
The next Wednesday night I showed up early (along with my wife, who went into the auditorium to both suffer embarrassment and to be comforted by the other ladies who were there early. I went into the office to meet with the three elders, and the preacher was there, too. He didn't know much about what was going on except for what the elders had told him in a few minutes, and he had not seen the blog (which was gone by this time). He was aware of my older son's deconversion and had actually had a number of discussions with him about it. Again, I made my promise to study, and I indicated that I wished to continue to be a member of the church. I was to go forward to offer public confession after the "invitation" was offered ("invitation" is Church-of-Christ speak for "altar call") and "acknowledge my sin." One of the elders remarked that most people in my situation would just say "I'm outta here!" and he wondered why I didn't respond that way. My honest reply was that there was simply no advantage to it, and that it would cause too many problems within my own family. They accepted this reasoning.
So then there was the confession: This was tough. I told about the blog, and explained that I needed to confess because that was public and required public "repentance." I apologized to my wife and thanked her for putting up with me. Then one of the elders got up and made a few comments. I interrupted to ask that nobody call my younger son, who was on his way to his new home, because I hadn't talked to him yet and he didn't know what was going on. Then they prayed for me.
Afterward, people offered all sorts of words of encouragement. Several people wanted to talk way too much, and in the next couple of week some brought me reading material.
I called my son the next day and left a message. He eventually called me back. He was upset, but he said he wasn't surprised. I talked to him about how Moses apparently believed that there was more than one god, and he said he knew that already! (So why is he still a believer.) I didn't tell him everything, but at the end he asked me to please say that I still believed that Jesus was the son of God, so I lied and said "yes." Since then, he hasn't said a word about it and I really think he doesn't want to know any more.
And since that time, I quit leading singing. One of the elders did ask several months later if I was going to start leading singing again, and I indicated that I was pretty happy to be retired from that. I may get that uncomfortable question again, but I can easily dismiss it if my wife isn't around. (When she's around it's harder to just dismiss, because it embarrasses her and she doesn't go to bat for me -- she takes the side of the person who's bugging me. I end up having to try to justify my decision. It's a pain, especially because she knows I'm an atheist!)
Occasionally, one of the other elders asks me how I'm doing, meaning "spiritually," and I say "pretty well." That's all there is to that conversation.
And that's it at this point! I show up most Sunday mornings by myself and use the time to read, and I go other times when my wife makes it, but not usually by myself. Nobody really expects much of me any more, and that's quite a relief.
I hope that some day my younger son won't be able to avoid the truth, and we can just be done with it. My older son surprised me when he figured it out, so it could happen.
I may decide to write a book someday. I wrote this post because I had never written this stuff down. It's kind of hurried, so there may be typos and awkward wording, but if I wait any longer I'll forget things.
There's a saying by Reinhold Niebuhr known as the "Serenity Prayer." It says "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference".
A discussion in the forums made me realize something today: For a Christian, the above is impossible, or nearly so. That's why they think the prayer is so important that they post it on knick-knacks all over their houses. They want their god to grant these things to them, but because they really think that by praying they should be able to change those things that are beyond their control, they will never have that serenity.
But as an atheist, this is easy! Once I realized that there was no such thing as Yahweh or any other god, I actually gained that peace that is beyond the Christian's understanding. I know for a fact that there are some things I can change, and some that I can't, and so accepting the things I cannot change becomes easy.
There are many things that Christianity claims for itself that are merely wishful thinking. The "peace that passes understanding" is once. Another important one is "ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." These are things that only the atheist can enjoy.
For various reasons -- mostly family related -- I'm semi-closeted, "making an effort" in order to avoid uncomfortable discussions -- so I show up for church on Sunday morning. I use the opportunity during the sermon to read. (I've just started "The God Delusion!") Since I am using the Nook app on my phone, nobody knows that it I'm not following the sermon in my Bible.
But I can't help hearing the sermon to some extent and seeing the slides. This morning's sermon was about "God's Presence." It was pretty much what you would expect.
How can we know that God not only exists but is near us? Some families just returned from a road trip out West, and having posted a number of beautiful pictures on Facebook, well, there's evidence right there, is there not? (Spoiler: No, actually that's evidence of 4.5 billion years of geology.) Preacher's point was that the fact that we perceive this as beauty is evidence of God.
And then there are the things that make us happy: Look at that cute baby! Wow, that ice cream sure tastes good! I love my children and grandchildren so much! Surely the fact that God has given us these wonderful things is evidence of his presence, his nearness! (Please ignore the circular reasoning!)
But that's not enough to convince a person, so what about this? You got to eat this morning! That's right, the fact that your needs are met is evidence that God is near.
But lest you be going through a rough time and are having a hard time appreciating all of the wonderful things in your life, please listen to this. Preacher suggests that if we wanted to, we could all make a list of the problems we're having right now. The aches and pains, the fact for some audience members that they're out of work, or that a loved one is sick or has recently died. And if we were so inclined, we could all make lists and compare them. By doing so, we might find out just who among us has it the very worst! But even after having done that, we still have blessings, don't we?! So you see, we still know that God is near!
Yes, that was the lesson. He's usually a pretty good preacher with some decently deep thoughts, but this lesson was as shallow as it could be. To boil it down, he's suggesting that we can have confidence in God's presence if we learn to exercise cognitive bias! If we learn to count the hits and ignore the misses, we'll have more faith!
That's it! Aren't you thrilled to know how easy it is to believe?
In "The Case for Christianity" C.S. Lewis wrote:
Can you see the problem here? He says "God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way." According to the Bible, there was no "if." Jehovah purposed to send the redeemer before the foundation of the world. Ephesians 1:3-5 says:
Christians who don't believe that Jehovah predestined each individual who would be saved, such as those in churches of Christ, believe that this is saying simply that Jehovah knew people would sin so he predestined the method by which they would be redeemed, and it seems to me that the wording supports that view.
Let's dissect this: The definition of "sin" is simply doing one's own will instead of Jehovah's will. Jehovah cannot sin, by definition, because whatever he does is his own will. Without free will there is no sin, so when Jehovah gave the angels free will he created sin. He didn't sin himself, because that is impossible by definition, but also by definition sin virtually came into existence the moment the option was opened up.
The ironic thing here is that it says he predestined us to adoption according to the kind intention of His will. The "kind intention of his will" is that he was going to create a class of eternal beings, give them the ability to choose to follow their own will instead of his own, knowing full well that's what the majority would do and that he would have no choice but to send them to Hell, which he created for the Devil and his angels (to whom he had also given free will, by the way), and he did it anyway! So according to the Bible Jehovah created two classes of eternal beings -- angels and humans -- and gave them the ability to sin. He apparently had better luck with the angels, since only a portion of them chose to do their own will (but without the avenue of redemption), whereas every last human ever born chooses to rebel against him. Does that definition of "kind" seem different than the one you normally use?
This cannot be stated too strongly: According to the Bible Jehovah knew ahead of time that the majority of humans would wind up in that place that he supposedly didn't intend them to be in.
This discussion is not intended to say that Jehovah is evil or malicious or anything of the sort. This discussion is intended to make the reader realize that Jehovah is a not-well-thought-out concept of a god that obviously does not exist. And while C.S. Lewis wrote this in defense of Christianity, does he not himself sound full of doubt? It's as if he's saying "I don't know why Jehovah created free will; it doesn't seem to be a good thing, but he's God so he must know what he's doing."
There's another quote that is relevant here. It's reputed to be by Epicurus, although that seems doubtful since his Greek culture was polytheistic and the quote is about a monotheistic god. Nevertheless, it presents something that through the ages has been referred to as "the problem of evil," and it's about as good of an argument against the existence of the god of the Bible as I've ever read:
Why indeed? Why even think such a being exists?
I don't know what it's like to not think about Christianity. Having been told the Bible was non-fiction from the time I was old enough to understand, and then in my 50's realizing that it's really just a book of myths, legends, and embellished history, it has thus-far been impossible for me to let go of this near obsession. Christianity affected nearly everything in my life, and realizing that it isn't true does not lessen the impact of it on my life in any significant way. Living in a place where nearly everyone believes it doesn't help. What must it have been like for the Romans and Greeks who first realized that their gods weren't real? I suspect that I can identify with them to some extent, except that they may have been in danger of being arrested. 500 years ago a person who told the truth about the Bible might have been arrested, too, but fortunately that isn't so today (at least not in the U.S.A.) What I really hope happens soon is that I forget about all of this, that I do not spend so many of my waking moments obsessing about Christianity. It's a mentally exhausting preoccupation. I hope that writing about it here provides the catharsis for me to put it in the past.
Now that I'm on the outside (mentally at least, though being in the closet I still go to church), it occurs to me that there are some words and phrases I used as a Christian that make no sense any more, and ways of expressing thoughts that now seem bizarre. These terms and phrases were designed to keep people in, and from the outside they're meaningless. Here are a few of them, with an explanation as to why they're so strange to me now.
1. Lost their faith
As a Christian, I don't think I even understood what this meant. When someone quit going to church, we said they had lost their faith whether they publicly declared that they didn't believe the Bible or not. If they quit going to the Church of Christ and started going to the Methodist church, we still said they had lost their faith. I don't think I ever thought about what faith really meant in this context, if it was a thing that could be lost or found. Mark Twain is wrote the following:
Now that I'm no longer a believer, I realize those who quit Christianity don't do so because they've lost anything. OK, maybe Twain was wrong, because a person who believes the Bible to be the word of Jehovah doesn't know it isn't.
The sad thing here is that we're warned so much about losing our faith that we go to great lengths to protect it. When we start to question, we do not launch an investigation to determine the truth. Instead we buy books and talk to people who are supposed to understand the Bible better with the goal of convincing ourselves that it's all true.
Faith requires ignoring the cognitive dissonance. When you realize the truth the phrase "losing your faith" no longer makes any sense, because all you've really done is realize how foolish (or simply fooled) you were before. To borrow another Biblical term, faith isn't a thing to be grasped.
That isn't to say that faith isn't real. My wife has faith in me and I in her, faith that we are both as committed to one another as we claim to be. This faith comes from experience, having developed trust in the other person. That faith can be destroyed by the other person, but we can't simply lose it. To make that more clear, I would not suddenly wake up one day and wonder whether my wife would cheat on me. I would not even, over time, begin to wonder whether she would cheat, eventually losing my faith in her. This could only happen if she were to do something to destroy that faith. Faith in Jehovah can't be "lost", either, and Jehovah can't destroy it, because it was based on fiction in the first place. Once we no longer have faith in the god of the Bible we can't say we've lost anything, only that we've learned the truth.
2. Fell away
I picture an open airship of some sort that a person can accidentally fall off of. Maybe I should picture a cruise ship, as drunk passengers do occasionally fall off of them. They fall away and get left behind, and it's a tragedy.
I get it. I've been on the end of having someone I cared about "fall away". From the inside it literally feels like a death in the family! But from the outside you realize that no such thing has happened. From the outside, being mourned for realizing there are no gods makes about as much sense as going into a deep emotional pit because your child realized that Santa Claus isn't real. To the person who supposedly "fell away", what really happened is that their eyes were opened to the truth. It's a time of rejoicing, because I'm no longer deceived. And it's a time of rejoicing because I'm no longer afraid that my relatives who "died without knowing the Lord" are in torment awaiting Hell! I haven't fallen: The scary ride just finally stopped and I got off.
3. Believe in
As a Christian I thought (like everyone around me) that you could choose to believe in things, and that you could reject a god that you knew was real. If a person who had been a Christian "fell away" it was probably because they didn't want to live according to Jehovah's rules. There must have been something they wanted to do that was sinful, so they just said "I don't believe in Jehovah" as a way of deceiving themselves.
Now I understand that the term "believe in" doesn't even apply to things that are real. A child believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. If Santa Claus was real, they wouldn't have to believe in him! A person doesn't believe in their house or their job or their spouse, because they know their house and job are real and their spouse is a part of their life. There are even things you can't see that do not require the phrase "believe in," such as bacteria. But a person who says that Jehovah is real must say they believe in him.
1 + 1 = 2. I don't have to believe in that, I simply understand it. Though I had to be taught what the symbols meant, the concept is intuitively obvious. Not so with Jehovah. Jehovah must be taught. Jehovah must be imagined.
The most important thing here is that you cannot choose whether you believe in Jehovah or not. You believe in Jehovah only because you've chosen to ignore evidence to the contrary (or perhaps never paid enough attention to notice it), and generally you seek out reasons to believe. Once you become aware that there's no such thing you don't choose to not believe, you simply cannot force yourself to believe something that isn't true!
4. Atheism is a religion
5. Evolution is a religion
Atheism is by definition not a religion. Atheism is the understanding that there are no gods. Atheism does not require one to pursue it. Although I'm a bit consumed with it now, atheism does not need me or anyone else to follow it.
And there's not any such thing as an "evolutionist"! Evolution is simply a field of study. Nobody worships Charles Darwin, and people who study evolution are quite aware of where he was right and where he was wrong. He did a really good job at getting the field started, but science is about learning, about understanding, and it requires knowing that there's always more to learn. Science, and in particular the field of evolution, can be pursued, but nobody thinks of it as a god.
By the way, there are plenty of Christians (who you, if you are a fundamentalist, might refer to as "so-called Christians") who accept evolution. Michael Behe, the fellow behind the "irreducible complexity" theory that "Intelligent Design" people love to use, believes in common descent. Young Earth Creationists quote Behe, but only so far as irreducible complexity is concerned, because he believes that evolution was guided by Jehovah.
6. Money or fame or fancy cars or television or celebrities are gods
It's good not to get too wrapped up in stuff. A person can get obsessed with things and lose sight of what is most important in life, namely, relationships with other people.
To say those things are gods can only come from a religious perspective. That saying implies that the person pursuing those things is substituting them for Jehovah. They aren't, because there are no gods.
The problem with saying these unimportant things are our gods is that, from the Christian perspective, even things that are truly important are seen as usurping Jehovah in our lives, therefore becoming our gods. If we spend time with our families, whether it's Wednesday night Little League games or vacation in a place where we may not go to an "established church" on Sunday, our family has become "our god" and we have sinned.
Family is not a god, but family is important. The same is true of caring for other people. Some really good teaching on this is attributed to Jesus. The person who pursues material goods in this life to the exclusion of relationships may be selfish or simply clueless when it comes to establishing priorities, but those things aren't a substitute for "Jehovah", they're a substitute for the better things in life.
7. "This life"
I actually typed "the person who pursues material goods in this life" above, then I realized what I had done. There's no reason to specify this life, because there is no other life. This is all we have, so we'd better try to make it as pleasant as we can for ourselves, for people around us, and for the generations to come. To do good is not to try to get a reward in a future existence whether that's a better position in a reincarnated life or a place in Heaven, it's to go through life spreading happiness.
8. Without the objective standard that the Bible gives us, nobody can say what is good and what is evil.
This. Is. HUGE.
There are more people in the world who do not claim to be Christians than there are who claim to be. There are people who practice Buddhism and Hinduism who are very kind and good people, and they don't look to the Bible to find out what is good and what isn't.
The saying among Humanists is "be good for goodness sake", which sounds like a Christmas song. But the Christian says we cannot know what "good" is.
The Old Testament actually condones evil in some cases. The case of Israel being told to kill every man woman and child among the Amalekites is literally genocide. If a nation at war were to do that today, we would try the generals, corporals, and even some privates for war crimes. Why? Because even if they were just following orders, they're supposed to know better. It is immoral to kill non-combatants, downright evil to kill children except in self defense, and we know this. But if we were to depend on the Bible for our moral code, we would allow such horrible things.
But that point is not necessary to reach the conclusion. Even if there was nothing evil in the Bible attributed to Jehovah, he wouldn't be necessary for us to know the difference between good and evil.
There's a very good question that has been asked, but is hard to word coherently. I'll try here:
Is a thing good because Jehovah says it's good, or does Jehovah inform us of what is good because it is inherently good and he wants us to know?
If it's good because Jehovah says so, then it's arbitrary: Capital punishment for adultery is somehow "good". But if Jehovah tells us what is good because it is inherently good, then his existence is not necessary for there to be such a thing as goodness.
The truth is that we know what is good and what is bad. Yes, there are sociopaths who seem to have no concept of right and wrong, but most people know that if you do something hurtful to another person, that's wrong. And you don't have to have religion to know this.
Evolution actually explains this quite well: Those members of the species who cooperated fared better than those who were selfish. Some people insist that "survival of the fittest" means "might makes right" but the overly selfish animal or person is not particularly fit. The Bible even says "if two lie together they can stay warm." Evolution agrees.
If what you do harms another, it's bad. If harm cannot be avoided, for instance if you have to choose who to favor, then do as little harm as possible. But causing deliberate harm to another is evil.
Speaking to the reverse, we really should be trying to help, not just avoiding harm. We should be doing good.
And billions of people around the world know the difference even without the Bible.