Philosophy, religion

Why Young Earth Creationists aren’t QUITE as stupid as you think

Imagine believing that the world is less than 10,000 years old and that God created us as described in the Genesis account.

Crazy as it may seem, and despite science showing us that the Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, as recently as 2014 it was a view held by nearly half of Americans.

A 2017 poll has the figure at a new low, but it’s still believed by 38% of Americans.

This got me thinking. After Trump there have been a whole bunch of think pieces desperately trying to explain why people voted for such a ludicrous candidate, and explanations have varied from economic anxiety to the idea that white people have faced discrimination as a result of political correctness (which is, of course, nonsense.)

But given that, up until recently at least, nearly half of Americans believed in Young Earth Creationism, where were all the think pieces defending them against the ‘intellectual elite’?

So, as someone who has escaped the clutches of the intellectual black hole that is creationism, I thought now was a good time to look at why exactly such a mad view is held by so many.

 

It all begins with Genesis

To those who don’t come from a Christian upbringing (and to many who do), it seems fairly obvious that the Genesis account is mythological in nature. By the time you come to the talking snake it’s a given we’re not dealing with something any of the writers ever considered history.

But, what if you believe the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God? How do you make sense of the opening chapters of Genesis?

The answer for more progressive, less-fundamentalist Christians has been to largely view Genesis as metaphorical or allegorical. Perhaps, some may say, the ‘days’ of creation are actually millions of years. Or, perhaps, this is not history at all, but instead a poetic account which captures some spiritual truths about creation, but not any scientific ones.

To the Young Earth Creationist though, these answers are unsatisfactory. Not necessarily because a literal interpretation is always preferable, but for a more sophisticated reason – to relegate the Genesis creation account to divine myth is to rob it of everything it has to say.

Let’s back up for a second. What exactly are the first few chapters of Genesis trying to convey? If it was just that God created, that’s done within the first verse –  ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ – no-more needs to be said. But that’s clearly not all the early chapters are saying.

Whilst Genesis 1-3 might be addressing many questions, the most explicit one is not ‘How did God create us?’ but ‘If God created us, why is there suffering?’ The answer provided by Genesis is it’s because of man’s disobedience. This is vital to understanding the creationist worldview.

The Genesis account paints the picture of a perfect creation free from death, where both animals and humans are entirely vegetarian (Genesis 1:29-30). It is not until Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, against God’s explicit command, that death and suffering enter the world.

Evolution is obviously hugely problematic to this reading of Genesis because it entails millions of years of death and suffering occurring long before humanity ever existed. In fact, by the time humanity came about nearly all of the species that had ever existed were extinct.

No-matter how allegorical or metaphorical you make Genesis, by accepting evolution you are disagreeing with its primary thesis, namely that God made the world good and sin is responsible for all the bad. In this way it’s weirdly the creationists, not the progressives, who have the ‘deeper understanding’ of what Genesis is saying. Prominent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins says a similar thing, that there’s almost something to be respected in creationists recognising the fundamental tension between their worldview and the image of the world evolution presents, in contrast to the moderates who are largely blind to it.

And so there are really three options. The first is, as discussed, to say there is divine truth in Genesis but it’s allegorical/metaphorical and doesn’t contradict science. Yet as we’ve seen, it’s not entirely clear what ‘truth’ Genesis has left when robbed of its main point.

The second option (and the most rational) is to simply see the Genesis account as one creation myth among many. This doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can learn from it. After all, I don’t believe in the Greek myths but they are fundamentally fascinating and insightful. It simply means that there is no ‘divine truth’, just human contemplation.

However, Young Earth Creationists choose the third option. They insist the Bible is the word of God, recognise it’s incompatible with the scientific consensus, and so reject the scientific consensus. After all, scientists can be wrong but God can’t be, right? I want to argue this reasoning, more so than scientific illiteracy, is the place where creationists take a wrong turn down a road that’s very hard to backtrack on. But first, let’s look at how creationists make sense of the facts.

 

What do they do with all those fossils?

The reason most people assume creationists are, well, idiots, is because it seems obvious the facts don’t support their theory. Of course the world isn’t 10,000 years old, just look at the fossil record, explain the dating methods etc.

The cliché understanding of a creationist is someone who simply doesn’t know much about these fossils or who says something stupid like ‘the devil put them there to mislead us.’ But actually, this rather underestimates the logical misdirection creationists use (and are trapped in!) to support their views.

So, imagine you meet a creationist and you’re feeling pretty confident you can put this fool in his place:

You: If the Earth is only 6,000 years old, how do you explain all the fossils?

Creationist: Easy, there was a global flood (Geneis 6 – 9) which would provide perfect conditions to preserve the fossils.

You: OK…but how do you explain the pattern of fossils? We don’t see humans buried below trilobites.

Creationist: Isn’t it obvious? In a flood, of course the most intelligent creatures are going to last the longest. The sea creatures will be buried first, as we see in the fossil record, but intelligent creatures like apes and humans can last longer. Humans were probably clinging on to floating trees and things like that.

You: But…well, we know the Earth isn’t really young. Just look at the Grand Canyon, that took millions of years to form.

Creationist: Wrong again! You believe it took millions of years to form because you subscribe to uniformitarianism, but a sudden catastrophic flood could create such a feature in no time at all.

I could go on, but you should begin to see how the creationist in this discussion isn’t being overwhelmed by ‘facts’. If you’re not particularly scientific literate, and therefore don’t have a detailed understanding of the geological formation of the Grand Canyon, it can be hard to argue with. It’s obvious there is a flaw in the logic, but far harder to articulate precisely what it is.

The best breakdown I’ve come across is in a book I reference quite often, ‘Believing Bullshit’ by Stephen Law. He explains that what creationists engage in is ‘making the facts fit.’ A creationist simply looks at the evidence in front of him and absorbs it into his worldview. He makes the facts fit whatever he already believes. The argument that the devil put the fossils there to deceive us is an example of such reasoning in an obvious form. Scientists, however, simply speaking, let the evidence speak for itself, allowing them to form a hypothesis which they can then test.

Unfortunately the two approaches can look pretty similar, and to the non-critical mind ‘making the facts fit’ is indistinguishable from the scientific method. One of the big differences is the ability of the approach to be falsified. In the ‘making the facts fit’ approach, nothing can prove it wrong. Anything that comes along will simply be explained away. On the other hand, the Theory of Evolution is pretty easy to falsify. All it would take would be, say, a human fossil in one of the earliest geological stratas. The fact that it could easily be disproved and yet hasn’t been makes it a far stronger explanation.

So, here’s my point, scientific illiteracy probably isn’t the main problem here. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure creationists are, on average, any more scientifically illiterate than the rest of the population. Of course if we all became scientists then creationism would probably die a quick death (for example, when I learned about dessication cracks in multiple layers of rock in A Level Geology, it was pretty clear to me that the flood model couldn’t possibly account for that.) But actually, it would be best to target the logic that gets creationists to the point of trying to argue for such a position in the first place. Unfortunately, our society is often on board with such logic…

 

What leads someone to become a creationist?

The most fundamental flaw in creationist logic is assuming that the Bible is the word of God in the first place. It’s a belief held by many Christians of all different persuasions, but when you think about it, it’s a ludicrous starting place. How on Earth do you come to the conclusion that a selection of texts, most the authors unknown, is the word of God? How do you even begin to justify that position? I could write a whole blog on that alone, but I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer.

Yet our society totally permits that logic, creating an artificial barrier between faith and reason. In matters of religion and spirituality, blind faith is positively encouraged (a phenomenon I have argued is extremely stupid here.) If we don’t hold religion to a standard of proof, then of course big claims like ‘this book is the word of God’ will go unchallenged.

We could equally understand creationism by seeing it as a conspiracy theory. I’ve argued at some length how I hate conspiracy theories here, and creationism bears many of the familiar hallmarks. Not just the logical sleight of hand discussed earlier, but also in the way they understand the scientific community. After all, how can a creationist make sense of nearly every scientist accepting evolution and an old Earth? Their reply is that there must be a ‘secular’ or ‘atheist’ agenda to keep biblical explanations out of scientific journals. This is, of course, nonsense. The reason they are rejected is because either the science is poor, or it is fairly assumed that starting with the assumption a collection of texts is divinely inspired is not good practice. Unfortunately a defining trait of fundamentalists is the belief that their religion is under attack, so that line of thinking lends itself to the conspiracy approach.

Yet our society fosters an environment where this line of paranoid logic can grow. We’re increasingly rejecting experts and encouraged to have our own opinions. Somewhere along the line we replaced ‘everyone is entitled to an opinion’ to ‘everyone’s opinion is equally valid.’ They are two very different things. Scientific consensus matters, particularly when most of us haven’t got the time, let alone the capacity, to make informed conclusions for ourselves. We need to start listening to experts again and recognise most of our opinions for what they are – uninformed, ignorant nonsense.

Putting all this together – the belief in the divine word of God, the ‘it fits’ line of reasoning and the conspiratorial mindset – Young Earth Creationism becomes an intellectual prison from which it’s incredibly difficult to escape. It’s a much more sophisticated and problematic trap than the ‘God done it’ simpletons we often imagine.

 

It’s OUR fault

So, in a way, I have some sympathy for Young Earth Creationists. When you look at their beliefs, they differ in degree but not in type to a whole bunch of nonsense a lot of our society believes. And so, creationism is mocked by the same culture that cultivates its existence. I wonder how many astrologers, spiritualists and wholistic healers have laughed at creationist beliefs? How many conspiracy theorists and religious inerrantists have sniggered at their stupidity?

I’m not making the case for creationists here, far from it. I simply want to highlight that their beliefs are probably not as stupidly founded as you might believe, and rely on logic that you are, statistically speaking, likely to be using to support some of your own views.

Hopefully by reflecting on how these logical fallacies are employed to support a position most consider untenable, it will both encourage us to have a degree of sympathy for the creationists and prompt us to challenge the way we use these fallacies ourselves in the future.

 

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Film, religion, TV

Shocking similarities between geek culture and religious fundamentalism

What do Superman and God have in common?

Well, I’m sure many have written a dissertation on such a question, but one obvious answer is they both have obsessive fans – geeks and fundamentalists.

As someone who grew up in a pretty fundamentalist Christian background and then went on to become a massive geek, I’ve noticed some pretty startling similarities between the two groups.

Here are a just a few…

 

Bizarre obsession with continuity

Christian fundamentalists often speak of ‘The Bible’ as if it’s one homogeneous text – something can be ‘biblical’ or ‘un-biblical’ depending on ‘what The Bible says.’

Of course, one is likely to think such a thing when you believe all scripture was inspired by God himself, but as we learn more about the context of the many texts of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we understand an obvious truth – each one was written in a specific time and place, with specific intentions.

It’s believed a lot of the Old Testament was written during the Jewish Exile to Babylon, and so the narrative focus on the Israelites being God’s chosen people is understood to be a wonderful story providing a strong image for the Jewish people struggling with a national identity.

Equally, each of the gospels were written at different times for different audiences which explains the varying portrayals of Jesus in each. It is really quite startling to contrast the differences between the human Jesus of Mark who dies on the cross asking ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’, to the God-man striding across the Earth in the Gospel of John.

Indeed, a better way to understand the Bible is not as one book written by one author with one intention, but instead put together (over a much greater period) a bit like Doctor Who. The classic sci-fi TV show began in 1963 in black and white, with a grumpy old Doctor who tried to cave the head of a caveman in during the second episode. But it changed radically across the course of its history, The Doctor becoming a recorder-playing clown, then a suave aikido-practicing gentleman who was trapped on Earth. And all this was before he became the iconic Tom Baker!

Importantly, the mythology kept on evolving. Initially The Doctor was just a wandering alien, perhaps the last of his kind, but then it was revealed he had a species. His first regeneration was explicitly linked to the powers of the TARDIS, but the second regeneration was down to the Time Lords. The Daleks were initially creepy lone survivors on a near-dead planet, before they became all powerful conquerors.

Trying to suggest there’s one consistent mythology to Doctor Who is a fool’s errand – it was written by different writers, for a changing audience over more than 50 years. But this doesn’t stop fans trying, pointing out ‘X contradicts an episode from over 30 years ago.’ In much the same way, it would do the fundamentalist good to acknowledge that contradictions within their Holy Scripture (which can be found not just across books, but also a mere few passages apart, such as how many animals God instructed to be taken on the ark) shouldn’t be explained away, but accepted as the inevitable outcome of an ever-evolving mythology across a library of fascinating texts.

 

Missing the spirit of the text

It is quite amazing how many racist and/or sexist Twitter users have the face of a superhero as their bio pic.  Aren’t superheroes about human decency? It’s extraordinary that any Star Trek fan could complain about a black lead. Isn’t the whole point of Star Trek an absolute egalitarian society? And recently, isn’t it crazy how Doctor Who fans have complained that from Christmas the next Doctor will be played by a woman? Doctor Who, as well as being about compassion and doing the right thing, so often preaches the necessity of change and the dangers of not letting go of the past.

It often seems fans completely miss the point of the characters and shows they idolise.

In much the same way, it is absolutely bizarre than any Christian could support Trump, who aims to make it harder for the poorest in the United States to have access to basic rights like healthcare and education. Wasn’t Jesus’ whole point that we should be reaching out to the poor and outcast in our society, and that the Kingdom of God will be the inversion of today’s reality? Yet Trump had a huge amount of support from Evangelical Christians.

It appears both fundamentalists and geeks could do well to look at the spirit of the texts, shows and characters they dedicate so much time to.

 

Problematic views on women

It’s sad but true that geek culture has some real issues with women. Of course this was shown clearly with the man-babies crying about the casting of a female Doctor (which I have talked about at some length here), but it’s equally manifested in the way fans reacted to the last two Star Wars movies having a female lead.

I remember reading lots of commentators responding to the Rogue One trailer saying ‘ANOTHER female lead.’ I know right, two out of eight movies – CRAZY!

Gaming culture is also particularly bad, with ‘bros’ talking about ‘girl gamers’ not being ‘real gamers’.

Again, this parallels fundamentalists across all the Abrahamic religions, who are often uncomfortable with female leadership. It is absolutely ridiculous that the Church of England is still arguing over female bishops. Why on Earth would a God (who, if he/she exists at all, would almost certainly be genderless) care about what genitals you have? That seems a far more human concern.

The lesson from this one is simple, geeks and fundamentalists both need to grow the fuck up and stop being so sexist.

 

The Golden Age

One of the defining traits of fundamentalism is ‘The Golden Age’ of the religion. This tends to extend both backwards and forwards in time. Once there was a golden age where the religion was practiced perfectly and, soon, there will be a future where the religion is once again practiced perfectly. Only now, at this specific moment, are the hard times.

This thinking is rife across all kinds of geek fandom. Star Wars might seem a slightly unfair example because the originals really were ground-breaking and hugely influential cinema, but the response to the prequels (and, in some circles, the newer movies) was always a bit blinkered, as if the originals were flawless with Shakespearean dialogue and unrivaled acting (they weren’t!)

Clearer still is Doctor Who fans who constantly hate on current showrunner Steven Moffat. They’ll complain endlessly that the Russell T. Davies era was the golden age of the show and it’s never been as good since, often forgetting the times when the Davies era wasn’t all that great (I mean no-one really liked that Daleks in Manhattan two-parter did they?) And, in perfect parallel to the fundamentalists, they project all their hopes on the upcoming showrunner, Chris Chibnall, for a new golden age of Doctor Who. It is inevitable that, within the first two or three weeks of the next series, they’ll be pining for the golden days of Moffat.

 

Silly differences

It’s amazing how religious followers can have so many beliefs in common but still see each other as ‘opposed’. You see it in Catholics and Protestants most obviously, but I’ve been in Evangelical churches who are quick to question whether some other set of Christians are ‘real Christians’ and ask if they are ‘really saved’.

This again is reflected in geek culture.

‘If you like the Star Wars prequels, you’re not a REAL Star Wars fan.’

‘They only liked Doctor Who because they fancied David Tennant.’

Guys, can’t we see what unites us rather than pick up on the smallest of differences?

 

Both geeks and fundamentalists spend too much time thinking about imaginary characters

As both a geek and someone slightly theistic leaning, this one is just me being facetious.

 

Most are nice people

For all the negative similarities, I think it’s worth pointing out the most obvious similarity – both are given a bad reputation by the vocal minority of dumb followers/fans.

Most religious people, even fundamentalists, want to practice their religion in peace without imposing it on the lives of others.

Similarly, most geeks watch these shows and films because they enjoy them, and don’t log-in to internet forums to complain that it’s the ‘worst one ever’ or to vent their anger at the latest bit of casting.

Both groups could benefit from some of their most vocal members just….shutting up…

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Philosophy, religion

Fumblings in the dark (or the appropriate response to the limitation of human reason)

Imagine, if you will, waking up in a pitch black dark room. You don’t know where you are or how you got there, nor can you see what’s in the room because of the darkness. You fumble anxiously for your phone. You need a light source. Finally you hold the phone up, but the light is weak, barely illuminating what’s in front. You have absolutely no idea where the room ends.

Here’s a question for you; what’s at the end of the room? Presumably you’ll think the answer’s obvious – ‘I have absolutely no idea.’

Now, imagine the same scenario but this time you wake up with your friend, Doris (yes, Doris…it’s my thought experiment and I’m allowed to have anachronistic names.)
“Don’t worry,” she says, noticing your heavy breathing. “It’s quite alright.”
“How can you be sure?” you ask.
“At the end of this room is a little lamp and, sitting right next to it, a really cute little kitten. You’ll love it.”
You breathe a sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank goodness. How do you know all that?”
“I just do,” shrugs Doris.
Your body begins to go cold as the hope slowly drains.
“What do you mean ‘you just do’?”
“I have faith,” Doris replies.
“But you’ve got no evidence,” you say, staring into the dark abyss.
“No,” laughs Doris, “that’s why it’s called faith, silly.”
You shake your head, unable to believe what you’re hearing.
“Besides,” she continues, “do you have any reason to think there isn’t a really cute kitten at the end of the room?”

In this scenario, do you think Doris is being sensible in her assertion? Let’s come back to this later.

 

The limitations of reason

“I know one thing; that I know nothing”, the famous Socratic paradox goes. Indeed if there’s one thing we can be reasonably sure of, it’s that we know very little. And I’m not even talking about the big questions, think of all the many known facts you have no knowledge of. Think of everything in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, history, geography, astronomy etc. that you don’t know (of course most of the things you don’t know, you won’t know you don’t know.)

It’s likely that each of us, as individuals, know considerably less than even 1% of everything that IS known. Isn’t that humbling? Sometimes we’re so used to our own bubble that we forget how DEEPLY ignorant we really are as individuals. It’s for this reason that I believe so strongly in the necessity of experts when it comes to beginning to make sense of the world, even if appealing to authority is hardly foolproof. In a world of growing egos, ever more elaborate conspiracy theories and stupid world leaders, the collective good that comes from trusting people specialising in a field and becoming informed experts really is at threat.

But, deeper still, there are questions to which reason simply doesn’t seem to offer an answer. Is there a God? What happens when we die? Does life have a purpose? These ideas ask questions beyond the physical and are, perhaps by necessity, outside the capacity of either the scientific method or human reason (unless you’re clinging onto the ontological argument for dear life, but I’m guessing most of you aren’t.)

It’s absolutely necessary that we accept this limitation – there is no point in pretending otherwise. In this way we are like that person trapped in the darkened room unable to see what’s at the end (and of course, we don’t have the liberty of being able to walk up and take a look for ourselves.) But so few of us actually act in this way – instead will fill this gap of knowledge with gods and demons, ghosts and spirits, meaning and purpose. We ‘do a Doris’, so to speak.

 

Is this a responsible reaction to the limitations of human reason?

Regardless of whatever motivates us to fill these gaps, the question becomes is it responsible to do so? In the case of Doris and her cute cat, do you think she is right to believe in the moggy at the end of the room? Presumably not, because there is absolutely no reason to think there is a kitten there.

And what of Doris’ reply, that there is no evidence to the contrary? Well that doesn’t seem satisfying either, you could come up with just about any theory (there’s an alien, an old man, a rocking horse, a T-Rex etc.) and the same would still be true. As is widely agreed, the burden of proof is always on the person making the claim, batty old Doris in this case. If Doris can’t justify her belief in the cat then she can’t expect others to believe her.

It’s because this all seems so obvious to me, that I find it hard to understand why rationalists and those who ask for evidence are so often portrayed as arrogant. There’s a definite imagining of the stuffy-old sceptic who thinks he knows everything. In fact I watched The Conjuring 2 recently (which I rather enjoyed, even if it has cost me a few hours sleep) and they portray the academics who don’t believe in hauntings as closed minded fools who arrogantly refuse to look beyond their noses. But this is all very misleading.

A true sceptic or rationalist is not assuming they know everything at all, quite the opposite in fact. They are simply asking for evidence of these claims in much the same way you would ask of evidence from dear old Doris. In fact if Doris is really convinced of her claims and judges you for not believing them, it is actually Doris who is extremely arrogant, as she is making the claim that she knows something extraordinary that nobody else has been able to prove. It’s her making the big claims about what’s at the end of the room who is presumptuous, not the person simply asking for some proof.

And so, it seems to me, in the face of the limitations of human reason, the answer is not just to plump for whatever belief system you fancy, but to stop and humbly acknowledge we simply don’t know. What’s at the end of the room? I don’t know.

Now, that’s not to say that everybody’s view is suddenly equal. In the case of Doris, her prediction is very specific and therefore more likely to be wrong. Just in the way that saying there’s another living being in this room gives greater probability to her claim than specifically insisting it’s a cat, the same is also true when talking of a God –‘ there may be a conscious designer of the universe’ is more probable than talking about a specific God who has a problem with homosexuality or shellfish (of course in both cases you’d still need a reason to make any sort of claim like this at all.)

It’s also possible that certain claims become less likely in virtue of the absence of evidence. When Doris states there’s a kitten at the end of the room, it would eventually cause us to doubt her further if we never hear a ‘meow’ (or any sound at all.) Equally, whilst we can never say for certain that psychic powers don’t exist, the fact that no scientifically controlled experiment has ever produced evidence of psychic powers should cause us some suspicion. Absence of evidence might not be evidence of absence, but we should be alarmed when evidence we may expect to see isn’t there.

But, in many ways, they are nuances for a greater discussion. The simple point at this moment is the mature response to the limitation of human reason is not making something up, as Doris does, but instead remaining absolutely open to any possibility if the evidence presents itself. And, if the question is beyond the capacity of human reason, simply remaining agnostic altogether.

 

What about faith?

I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been having an interesting discussion with someone about their beliefs and suddenly it becomes a dead-end. Why? Well I’m fascinated by what people believe (that’s part of the reason I did Philosophy and Theology as a degree) but I’m even more interested in why they believe it, I think that’s the much meatier part of the discussion.

Yet, when someone evokes ‘faith’ as an answer it stops the conversation dead. In fact, often it’s said with a satisfied smile, as if faith is a virtue I haven’t quite ascended to yet. But in truth, if your definition of faith is ‘believing something for no reason’, that’s not virtuous, that’s ridiculous. Sorry, but it’s true. Faith, when defined in such a way, is just a crutch to hold onto beliefs that you know rationally you should do away with.

It’s not surprising we fall into this trap of using faith in such a way. For some time ‘faith’ has been defined as ‘believing without reason’ by certain religious groups and people mistake it for a supporting tenet of organised religion (ancient and, therefore, wise.) But, in actual fact, I remain far from convinced that this definition of faith is something the ancients would particularly recognise. It’s a big topic for another day, but I can’t help but doubt that the use of the word in an ancient world, pre-enlightenment and the scientific method, would mean the same thing as it does today post those movements.

Even a brief glance at the use of the word in the Abrahamic religions shows it unlikely was used to denote blindly believing something, in fact it seems largely about ‘faith in God’, not ‘faith in God’s existence.’ That’s a clear distinction. If I said I have faith in my parents, for example, you would presume I’m talking about trusting their ability to deliver, not blind belief in their existence. Throughout most the Hebrew Scriptures it’s taken for granted that God exists, so faith is almost always about trusting in his word as opposed to trusting in his existence.

And indeed, in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:15 says ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’. Presumably this indicates some kind of rational persuasion, not an insistence on blind acceptance.

I do plan to one day look at this issue of faith in MUCH more depth, but a brief skimming of the subject indicates that calling on ‘faith’ to defend belief without reason is not some virtuous religious tradition but likely a reasonably modern definition of the word, re-defined for a post-enlightenment age where the existence of God is substantially called into question.

The true definition of ‘faith’ throughout religious traditions is likely going to be a lot richer and a lot more beautiful than the tacky gift shop version that is often bandied around today.

 

Why does this matter?

When all is said and done, you may wonder why any of this matters.

Well, I think we’re encouraged today to have opinions on things, and pushed not to ‘sit on the fence’ (which, I think, is often a perfectly fine place to be.) Plus there’s a natural human inclination to attribute meaning and a narrative to our existence. But to begin to adequately form a worldview, we need to make sure the very building blocks on which it’s formed is sound, yet seldom do we invest time analysing them.

And this is not a conclusion by the way, it’s very much just a beginning. You might think, based on this post, that I’m totally agnostic, but that’s not strictly true, I actually have theistic leanings. But it’s so important to make clear (to ourselves, if no-one else) our attitude to reason, to its limitations and our approach to evidence, before we can even begin to start making a positive case for any particular worldview.

So in conclusion…we need to be humble inquisitors, not a Doris.

 

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Philosophy, religion

21 questions I would ask the Christian God

Imagine you could ask God anything…what would it be?

Here are my 21 questions I would ask the Christian God*:

  • Why does bad food taste so good? Why is chocolate so irresistible, whereas vegetables taste bland? If you made a carrot taste of chocolate, and chocolate taste of carrot, I’d be fit as a fiddle. Also, why does the nicest food in the world have to come from suffering dead animals and also give us cancer?
  • Why make your existence so ambiguous? If your aim is to get people to believe in you, just drop in and say ‘hey’ once in a while. Leaving the world to look exactly as it would if there were no God is a risky game.
  • Why are so many of your followers absolute bellends?
  • Do you actually have a problem with homosexuality? If so, isn’t it a bit creepy you care so much about what people do with their genitals? If you don’t have an issue with it, why not make that clear in the Bible instead of leaving ambiguous passages that would be used to oppress minorities for thousands of years? Same question for women and slavery.
  • Why have you allowed four Transformers movies to be made? You’re meant to be a loving God.
  • If we have freewill, and we act badly, isn’t that, well…a design flaw? Don’t want to point fingers or anything…
  • What’s the deal with the devil? Like…is he real? If so, it’s kind of super irresponsible to give him the kind of free reign he has. If he’s just a character, he’s a bland villain. What’s his motivation? To try and fight an all powerful God and be a general dick? I just don’t believe it, you know. Maybe a writers class would help…
  • On a similar note, if a thick person raised in a religious family never questions anything, he goes to Heaven, but if a smart person can’t find sufficient reason to believe, they go to Hell? Does that make being smart a hindrance and being dumb an advantage? Isn’t that a bit stupid?
  • Do you know what I’m going to pray before I pray it? If so, is there any point in me praying? Also, why don’t you just do good things without us asking? When you have the power to stop terrible things happening but don’t, that’s kind of being a dick. Like, watch Spiderman, that explains the whole ‘power and responsibility’ thing.
  • Speaking of which – spiders…what the actual fuck were you thinking?
  • Why evolution? That’s a really slow and cruel way to get to the point we’re at. More than 99% of species that ever existed are now extinct. Why not just make us as we are now and save a few billion years? Also, doesn’t evolution totally retcon Genesis?
  • Similar point, why make animals that rely on eating each other? Why aren’t we all made vegetarian? If animals have to eat each other, why make them conscious of their pain?
  • Have you ever thought about issuing a statement about all those things ‘done in your name’? Good PR I would have thought.
  • Will there ever be a sequel to the Bible? Sequels are all the rage these days. Don’t worry, it doesn’t even have to be as good…just needs to be bigger. Maybe you could build up to a Religious Cinematic Universe and have Jesus team up with other religious figures (not naming names because…frightened) to fight off immorality, or fig trees.
  • The Book of Revelation…what’s that all about? Can deities get high?
  • Why didn’t you send Jesus in a time when there were video cameras as opposed to a time when we have to trust written sources? That way intellectually challenged half-wits wouldn’t be able to deny there was at least ‘a Jesus’ (well, some of the loons might say it was holograms or staged or something, but you can’t convince everyone.)
  • Also, Jesus kind of thought the world was ending soon…he did, right? I’m not judging, we all make mistakes.
  • Do you actually care when privileged people in the West pray for trivial things? We would totally understand if you wanted to spend time helping out impoverished nations and fighting infant mortality instead. I imagine it’s like having one child asking for a loan for a lamborghini whilst you’re caring for his terminally ill brother!
  • Do you like being praised? People constantly telling you how great you are (and going pretty crazy whilst they’re at it) could get awkward, I imagine.
  • Bourbon or custard cream?

 

What questions would you ask God?

*These are, of course, tongue-in-cheek. I’m full aware that on coming face-to-face with an all-powerful being I would be awe inspired and probably shitting it. 

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Philosophy, religion

Why conspiracy theories are usually nonsense

The older I get and the more thought I give the world, the more I realise conspiracy theories really irk me. Not because of the content, per se, but rather in the thought processes that generate belief in conspiracy theories. In fact, I think many conspiracy theories exhibit the absolute WORST in human reasoning (namely anti-intellectualism, disinterest in evidence, over-simplification and arrogance.)

Let me begin, however, by adding a caveat. A belief in a conspiracy isn’t stupid in virtue of itself, there may very well be good reasons to believe that a conspiracy has taken place. Heck, we can point to numerous examples throughout history whereby things we would call a ‘conspiracy theory’ have proven to be exactly as conspiratorial in nature as could possibly be feared.

No, what I’m talking about are the many beliefs that fall under the term ‘conspiracy theory’ that are entirely without merit. The beliefs where the ‘evidence is out there’ if you only ‘wake up and open your eyes’ – when conspiracy theorists say this, they seldom mean a peer-reviewed journal!

So let’s look, step-by-step, at the dangers of conspiracy theories and why they represent the absolute nadir in human critical thinking.

Firstly, conspiracy theories encourage anti-intellectualism. After the election of a president who doesn’t believe in global warming and who thinks women should be punished for having an abortion, now more than ever we have to fight against a sinister growing voice that encourages us to disregard experts and simply go with our gut. Conspiracy theories almost always rely on the complete disregard of the views of celebrated professionals in a field (someone who has worked hard and earned the respect of their peers) under the pretence that they’re part of the cover-up. Anti-vaxxers don’t trust medical health experts, global warming deniers don’t trust scientists, Jesus myth propagators ignore leading historical scholars etc.

And what is the voice of experts replaced with? Crappy, poorly researched websites and hours of mind-numbing YouTube videos by someone who is unlikely even to have a degree in the subject they are talking about (let alone be respected by experts in the field.) Under the guise of ‘free-thought’ conspiracy theorists open themselves up to a wealth of information which has had no validation from someone with authority on the matter, and the theorist themselves are almost always going to be unqualified to truly discern the reality from the bullshit.

Secondly, conspiracy theories are rarely supported by compelling evidence. I suspect this is where most contention will come in because for someone engrossed in the world of conspiracies and who consumes the conspiracy media, it probably looks like there is an abundance of evidence. Problematically, however, this evidence is rarely peer-reviewed or widely accepted by those in the know. Occasionally a professor in botany might come out as an anti-vaxxer and, despite 99% of scientists disagreeing, the theorists all of a sudden become interested in experts (whilst carefully ignoring the broad scientific consensus). However, in such a situation the evidence seems to be merely a nice extra and expedient as opposed to vital.

And, annoyingly, conspiracy theories are almost always impossible to prove wrong – they tend to just consume evidence. For example, there might be a wealth of evidence that global warming is taking place, but that can simply be hand-waved by ‘that’s what they WANT you to think.’ In Stephen Law’s excellent book ‘Believing Bullshit’, he explains how being an unfalsifiable belief is not a strength using the example of creationism and evolution. Creationism is essentially unfalsifiable because creationists always amend their beliefs to fit the evidence (which is distinctly different from amending their beliefs FOLLOWING the evidence.) Evolution could be proved wrong, however, simply by finding human remains in the wrong geological strata. The fact that no such thing has been found is a strength of the Theory Of Evolution, not a weakness. After all, I could say there’s an invisible, pink unicorn running around outside and I guarantee you, you won’t be able to ‘prove’ that’s not the case – but that doesn’t make it a reasonable thing to believe!

Thirdly, conspiracy theories tend to over-simplify complicated situations into easy-to-digest narratives. Why ponder the social and economic climates that lead to any particular class voting in a certain way at a general election, when you can instead just say ‘the illuminati did it.’ Why read through hefty scholarly articles on the historical Jesus to get a sense of what can or cannot be attributed to him when you can simply believe it as written or deny it as myth altogether. This broad kind of simplification is lazy and uninformed. It would be remiss of me (and rather hypocritical) to over-simplify why people believe in conspiracy theories, but one can’t help but feel that it attracts a certain kind of person who can’t make much sense of the world without the theories. In fact, one suspects for some people a crazy, purposeless world is so frightening that believing in an evil world order pulling the strings is more comforting. Believing that companies deliberately make us ill may be easier to accept than the fact that disease will always exist and affect us.

In fact, the simplification just leads to a complete lack of nuance. For example, I myself am very suspicious of the way some pharmaceutical companies are run and question just how much money determines how long we’ll live. Equally, I find myself rather unsettled by the current US Administration’s relationship with Russia. The world isn’t all sunshine and roses – money talks, power corrupts and it’s vital that we acknowledge that. However, we must do this in a reasonable, nuanced and mature way. Questioning how much money is a determining factor in our health quality is quite different from suggesting Big Pharma is purposefully giving us cancer. The latter is an unsupported gross oversimplification but, perhaps, an easier narrative to get our heads around.

Paradoxically, as well as over-simplifying, some conspiracy theories actually over-complicate issues – they provide an explanation for something that already has one. For example, one looks at the Brexit chaos of last year and it’s pretty clear what happened. A Conservative government, to ease party tensions, ran a referendum which everyone assumed they would win, then turned into a shock result which the politicians weren’t prepared for. That’s a pretty easy and obvious explanation for the momentarily destabilising events that followed the vote. However, if you believe in the Illuminati, you must now provide a further explanation as to why this series of events took place as they did – a series of events that already has an explanation now needs another! And, as most of us know, a rational conclusion would be to invoke Occam’s Razor and shave away the unnecessary explanation altogether. (Quick side note on the Illuminati – when conspiracy theorists constantly point to lyrics and symbols in music videos as ‘signs of the Illuminati’, I can’t help but imagine the strange circumstances of landing a job in the Illuminati PR department where your job is to get the message out there…but don’t be noticed. That’s one hell of a brief, right?!)

Conspiracy theories can also be extremely dangerous. An obvious example would be failing to get your child immunised against a life-threatening disease, but there are less obvious examples too. For instance, if you believe that the President of the United States is just a puppet for some grand shadowy organisation, then that may well make you apathetic to voting. After all, what does it matter, they have the same agenda anyway. However, as we have recently had the misfortune of finding out, electing the wrong President can have huge ramifications for people’s lives and indeed the preservation of the planet for future generations.

Finally, conspiracy theories, from my anecdotal experience, seem to foster a strange arrogance in its followers. I guess it’s a fundamental problem of any belief system which sees itself as significantly more ‘enlightened’ than the dumb masses, but it really manifests itself with conspiracy theorists. People, many of whom may have had no further education at all, keep bemoaning the ‘blind sheeple’. In fact one gets the sense that this too is part of the appeal of conspiracy theories, it’s rather soothing to one’s ego to think you’re in a significantly more informed place than the rest of the world (it’s essentially like getting stuck in a teenage mentality forever).

It also can create a strange mindset whereby a conspiracy theorist starts believing conspiracy theories simply because they are conspiracy theories. At that point you know that all reason is out of the window and the person has succumbed to an almost religious-unquestioning (all, ironically, in the spirit of so called ‘free-thought’.)

Conspiracy theories are also dangerous because they can often be deceptively compelling. In fact, Stephen Law describes conspiracy theories as an ‘intellectual black hole’, ideas that once you believe, are very hard to shake off. And let’s be honest, if you watch hours of YouTube videos propagating this or that conspiracy theory, it’s likely to eventually become convincing, assuming you don’t have the relevant knowledge to question the claims. A good example is a conspiracy video called ‘Zeitgeist’ which suggests, among other things, that Jesus was a myth. If you watch the video completely uninformed on the study of the Historical Jesus, it’s likely to be very compelling. There’s a clear narrative, patterns are shown and before you know it, you’re sucked it. In this particular instance, however, I did my dissertation on the Historical Jesus and was, thankfully, informed enough on this issue to realise that a lot of Zeitgeit’s claims aren’t just wrong, they’re positively ludicrous.

But it does raise an interesting question; how does one seek to determine truth in this confusing world? Learning what sources to trust is a fundamental rite of passage if you want to understand the world at all. Ideally we would all become experts on every issue but due to the lack of time and, perhaps, capability, that’s off the table. So, instead, we are forced to trust the word of others on most issues we believe, and we’re all acutely aware that this is not a foolproof system. After all, what if Galileo had trusted the consensus of his time?

There is no easy answer I can think of, but I will say this – Galileo thought critically and used evidence to challenge the prevailing views of his day. He was using reason and applying the scientific method to change minds. This attitude to me seems much more in spirit with the scientists and experts of our day, than of conspiracy theories. We have to ask ourselves this question: Are we to become so cynical and shaded that we disregard all expert opinion under the belief that everyone is coerced and has an agenda, so our only refuge for information is unqualified internet bloggers? Or can we maturely do our best to humbly accept the expert advice of those we have no reason to distrust, always with a healthy dose of critical thinking, to come to a nuanced and informed view of the world? I know which I’d prefer.

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Philosophy, religion

The problem with prayer

 

Do you pray?

You wouldn’t be alone. A survey as recent as 2013 found that six out of seven Brits believed that prayers could be answered.

But I’ve been thinking recently, how exactly would prayer work? As in, how would God actually go about answering your prayer?

prayer-beadsYes, if you haven’t guessed by now, this blog post is going to be highly speculative but I want to tackle it simply because people talk about prayer as if it’s simple, ask and receive, but a little bit of thought shows that the issues it raises are REALLY complicated.

In our society there’s such a lack of nuance and complexity, and issues are dumbed-down to the point that they have no meaning. We fake nuance but we seldom mean it. Sometimes when I hear a religious person say to me ‘God’s not some bearded guy in the sky’, I suspect they’re really thinking ‘he probably doesn’t have a beard’.

And prayer is one of those issues that is talked about in religious circles (and in the mainstream I suppose) with seemingly little thought as to what is really being said, so I wanted to try and ask a few initial questions to get my own mind rolling when contemplating prayer.

I’m not going to be discussing whether prayer works or how you would even know that a prayer has been answered. I’m sure we’ve all got a Christian friend who says something like ‘God blessed us with a new house’ and it’s not entirely clear how God could be involved in that at all (I’m sure the seller, your buyer, the estate agent and the removal men helped but, hey, why not imagine an all powerful deity contributed as well!)

I’m also not going to explore the ethical questions raised by prayer, such as why an omnipotent, benevolent God would interfere in the world to solve first world issues but entirely ignore the plight of the devastated in Syria or the masses who die in Third World countries from curable diseases. (Plus no-one could tackle those issues better than Tim Minchin does in this fantastic song about healing.)

I simply want to look at the question of how God would go about answering a prayer, and I’m going to do so through a fictional character called Bob.

Bob and the parking space

Bob had spent two years in a dead-end job and, after a particularly harrowing day, decided to take life by the horns and start applying for other jobs. After a while of no luck he stumbled across his dream job, an editorial position in the city. He was a little under-qualified but went for it anyway, what harm could it do?

A few days pass and he hears nothing but one fateful afternoon he receives a phone call, the phone call. The company want him in for an interview. Bob is elated, confident he can perform well in front of the interview panel. He lives quite far from the city so he sets his alarm a few hours earlier than normal, to give him time to drive in.

parking-spaceHe wakes up the morning of the interview but something awful has happened. During the night there had been a power cut, meaning his alarm had reset. Shit, he thinks, scrambling for his watch. He breathes a sigh of relief. If there’s no traffic, he should be OK. Unfortunately, there is a traffic jam and Bob all but gives up hope. But then, things start to get moving. He checks his watch. It should take him about 15 minutes to get into the city and his interview is in 20 minutes. If he can find a parking space nearby he might just be able to make it on time.

And then Bob does something which he doesn’t normally do. He prays. ‘God’, he says, palms sweating on the wheel, ‘I know I don’t pray much, but please, please let there be a space when I arrive’.

As he pulls up outside the offices, he can’t believe it. Right outside the front door is an empty parking space. “Thank you God” he exclaims, and heads off to his interview. Bob gets the job.

Let’s assume he is right (I know, big assumption!) and God arranged things so that Bob could get a parking space. There are several big questions to ask.

How exactly would God have arranged this?

So, assuming that God did intervene, and the parking space wasn’t always going to have been empty, what would God have done to ensure the space was empty?

Perhaps he changed the mind of the person who would have parked there otherwise (and anyone else who might have thought about taking it). But isn’t that a troubling idea? If God can change the mind of a person to suit his own agenda, then doesn’t that have terrifying repercussions for our freewill and autonomy? Can God simply change our minds at random? Unless you’re a Calvinist, and I assume most rational people aren’t, surely a God who has such little regard for humanity’s freewill is terrifying (and if you’re a Calvinist I guess it doesn’t matter what you think because you were always going to think that, there’s nothing you can do to change it and God thinks that’s good.)

So perhaps God intervenes in a more subtle way. Maybe, on these occasions, God intervenes by breaking the closed cycle of nature to influence events. It’s easy to say, but, when you think about it, difficult to imagine. How would she do it? If we use a really direct on the nose example, maybe he could increase the wind in such a way that it causes a tree to fall and land on the car at the home of the man who would have had Bob’s parking space otherwise. At least that way God doesn’t have to change someone’s mind directly but merely uses nature as a tool to manipulate events to her will. It’s still pretty terrifying but less so than a God who can change your thoughts.

But just looking at this question in the most basic way possible, it begins to show that answering prayers must be harder than simply agreeing or disagreeing to a request – God would have to interfere with the lives of other, unconsenting ordinary people to achieve his aim.

But there’s a bigger, more interesting question yet to come…

Has God just changed the future?

If God answers the prayer and ensures there’s a parking space for Bob, has God just changed the future? If Bob had never of prayed would someone else have had that parking space? Might someone else (let’s call her Mary) have ended up getting her dream job?

If this is the case, then God would be changing the future. Yet how would this work in practice? Might God give special preferential treatment to those who pray. Perhaps, if Bob had never prayed, he would have been late for the interview and Mary would have got the job. But, because Bob prayed, God changed the future to help out Bob. Poor Mary lost out because she didn’t pray. Is that fair?

Or, perhaps God being omniscient means he can see every possible future and actualises (or causes) the best one. But shouldn’t a loving God be doing this anyway? And wouldn’t it be unlikely that exactly what Bob asks for leads to the best possible future?

Most of us have watched enough Doctor Who to know that changing the future is a dangerous business. Changing one small thing (like Bob getting the job over Mary) could change history forever – at the very least it would certainly change both their lives, their families’ lives and the lives of the people around them. The consequences of this could echo further into the future. So, does God storm in breezily and answer prayers and to hell with the consequences for everyone else, or does she think this stuff through? Wouldn’t that make God like the ultimate Time Lord, having to work out which moments of time are in flux and which moments can’t be changed?

Perhaps you could get around this by saying God was always going to answer that prayer and therefore the future has never changed. But this raises the big question, if God knows everything we’re going to do, like pray to him, how can we possibly have freewill? One possible answer, put forward by Christian apologists like William Lane Craig, is that God knows what we’re going to do, but we’re not necessarily going to do it (basically we’re going to do it, but we’re not predestined to do it). This seems reasonable enough to me, but when it comes to God knowing what he’s going to do, surely that does deny him agency. God knew, for an eternity, he was going to answer the prayer? So God would never have willfully chosen to answer the prayer, he just would always have known he was going to…even when no-one even existed to pray. Ah, it makes the head ache!

You might try to get around it and say God’s omniscience is limited by freewill – even an all knowing God couldn’t know in advance what an autonomous person with true freewill will decide. This certainly weakens the definition of ‘all knowing’ that most religious people subscribe to, but it’s a bit more comprehendible. The trouble is, that would make God interactions with the world ‘well intentioned’ at best. She could intervene, but would have to cross her metaphorical fingers that it actually was for the best. Would it even be responsible for such a God to answer people’s prayers? Would it really be helpful or dangerous meddling?

It does surprise me that more Christian apologists don’t fall back on these questions when asked why God hasn’t answered a particular prayer. Instead of saying something glib like ‘God knew that wouldn’t be best for you’ (which reveals the egotistical centre of so much petitionary prayer), you could just say ‘God didn’t answer your prayer because it might damage the causal nexus and cause a worse future for thousands of others.’

The problem of prayer

If you’re waiting for an answer or a flowing conclusion then you’ve greatly overestimated me. I’m sure there are philosophers and theologians who have dealt with many of the questions I’ve raised far more authoritatively, but really I was just interested in raising some of the many issues thrown up by a God who interacts with the world.

Many of these questions are either too complicated for human minds, or they may just be questions which make no sense because they don’t correspond to any real reality.

It is a reminder though that when we talk of prayer, we tend to think of it as taking place in a vacuum. After all, what would be so hard about an all powerful God providing a parking space for one day? But when we think just what it would take for a simple prayer like that to be answered, then we might show a little more humility in exclaiming what a God has or has not done in our lives.

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Philosophy, religion

Is the Easter story actually quite horrific?

Cross

The Easter story gets to the very heart of what those zealous religious door-knockers are getting at when they tell you ‘Jesus died for your sins.’

The traditional formulation of the Easter story, particularly in the Evangelical circles in which I first was exposed to Christianity, is God incarnate, Jesus, was nailed to a cross and tortured as a sacrifice for the sake of humanity.

According to this narrative, Jesus took upon himself what was rightfully ours – we should be the ones nailed to the cross because that would be just. Jesus, however, effectively works as a blood sacrifice and God’s wrath and anger are appeased.

Happy Easter folks, enjoy your chocolate eggs…but hold up, isn’t that story kind of, well, horrific? Isn’t the idea of blood sacrifice tribal and barbaric?

Wait, before you think I’m some kind of militant atheist with an axe to grind let me assure you I’m not. I’m actually broadly sympathetic to Christianity; in fact I would consider myself a ‘progressive Christian’!

But let me outline three reasons why I hate the understanding of Easter that I shared above.

  • The narrative is barbaric
  • ‘Dying for sins’ is almost certainly a notion that would have been quite foreign to the ‘historical Jesus’
  • Focusing on his sacrificial death can downplay Jesus’ life

* Before I begin I want to reassure you that I know how big these topics are and that I’m only able to graze over them. These are huge topics (christology, eschatology, soteriology etc.) and even with a degree in this stuff, and a dissertation on the ‘historical Jesus’ under-my-belt, I know I can’t really do much more than scrape the surface.

So, let’s begin:

The Easter narrative is barbaric

As mentioned earlier, surely the whole notion of blood sacrifice necessary to cleanse our sins is an awful, tribal idea.

I don’t want to labour this point because I think it’s pretty obvious, but let me elaborate a little. In our civilised society a great deal of us do not believe in capital punishment, and even those who do would mostly only want it implemented for the most heinous of crimes.

So, it would seem, our civilised society has out-evolved a God who is, allegedly, all powerful and all good.

But, a Christian might say, God is also just and so is forced to demand rightful penance for all transgressions.

Well, let’s break that down a little. Why would blood sacrifice be demanded by God for sin? Is this a rule he has arbitrarily created? If so then this does nothing to let God off the hook because it’s his ridiculously overwrought legislation in the first place.

Or, might it be blood compensation is required as a universal rule that God has no choice but to follow? Of course this idea is seemingly preposterous on any reflection – could one really believe that outside of space and time there is a rule demanding that blood be shed for wrongdoing? That even if humans were never created, that law would still exist eternally? It’s ridiculous.

Even more troubling is that it would undermine God’s omnipotence – God is bound by universal rules outside of his/her control.

It becomes a very slight variation on the Euthyphro Dilemma posed by Socrates – ‘Is blood sacrifice demanded by God because it is just and necessary, or is it just and necessary because it is demanded by God?’

Either way, you’re left with a difficult answer that is very hard to square with an all loving, all powerful creator, let alone being able to square it with an intellectually honest mind.

 

The Easter story would be foreign to the ‘historical Jesus’

You may agree with me that the idea of blood sacrifice sounds barbaric, but are wondering why I don’t simply bin the Easter story altogether and find a narrative more befitting for the 21st Century.

Part of my reply would be that I don’t think the Easter narrative as we traditionally understand it would be recognisable to the ‘historical Jesus’.

I need to show my hand here, I’m a firm advocate of learning as much about the ‘historical Jesus’ as we can (that being the Jesus who we can discover using the methods of history.)

How much you can discover about the ‘historical Jesus’ is up for debate, but there is a clear scholarly consensus that we can know certain aspects of his life and teachings.

I’ve always believed Christianity would do best to rely more on the teachings of Jesus than on the Epistles of Paul, which colours more of our understanding of Christianity today than the Gospels!

The Easter narrative is another clear example of why focusing on the ‘historical Jesus’ is more rewarding than on the Epistles of Paul because we are left with quite a strange conclusion – that Jesus dying for our sins was probably an idea that the ‘historical Jesus’ had no concept of.

Again, this is a huge area of contention and I’m not going to be able to do it adequate justice in a mere blog post, but there are a great many scholars who believe Jesus didn’t even intend his death – it was simply a by-product of his political activity and his controversial views.

However even scholars who do believe Jesus intended to die can’t jump to the idea that he ‘died for our sins’, at least not in such glib terms. One scholar who I have an immense amount of time for is N. T. Wright, a leading British New Testament scholar and retired Anglican priest.

In Volume 2 of ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God: Jesus and the Victory of God’, Wright reaffirms the case that atonement theology as we currently understand it was not even available to Jesus at the time. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, after all, Judaism usually doesn’t have a concept of ‘original sin’ (or at least ‘ancestral sin’), an idea which has more to do with Augustine’s extrapolation of Pauline theology than Jewish beliefs.

As Wright says in Volume 2, ‘there was, then, no such thing as a pre-Christian Jewish version of (what we now think of as) Pauline atonement theology.’

In Wright’s own theological/historical reading, this doesn’t make Jesus’ death a meaningless event, in fact he thinks Jesus saw himself as embodying the sufferings of Israel that was necessary for YHWH’s return (and so bringing about the Kingdom of God.)

Whether or not he is right about this (and, I should say, I do love Wright’s criterion of double similarity and dissimilarity as a tool to understand the ‘historical Jesus’ – that is to say if there is a similar idea in the Jewish matrix in which Jesus arose from but not identical, and a similar thought in the Early Church, but not identical, then the idea is likely to have belonged originally to Jesus), the point was to really show, in an insanely broad way, that our ideas about sin and penance are theologically overdeveloped to the point that Jesus himself would probably not have identified with them.

It downplays the importance of Jesus’ life

It’s weird that our two major celebrations of Jesus’ life are of his birth (a story about a virgin mother, angels and stars which is almost certainly mythical) and his death, which is incredibly theologically loaded.

What we miss by focusing so intently on Jesus as some kind of sacrificial lamb is his life.

I sometimes ask myself why I have any attachment to Christianity at all when I now see it as one narrative, largely made of fictitious stories, among many. And my answer would be I still find the practices of Jesus to be a very appealing approach to the world and the closest thing I can understand to a loving God coming down among humans.

He outreached to the poor, the rejected and the despised. He spoke of the worthlessness of cheap talk and meaningless prayer, and of the importance of action. He said that it is through how we treat the poor and needy in our society that determines our relationship with God. He spoke of a new Kingdom that was coming (in fact, happening at that moment) where the last would be first.

I don’t want to simplify Jesus and speak of him as if he were a humanist with an eccentric vocabulary, he wasn’t. There is an intellectual dishonesty to downplaying Jesus’ obviously strong religious convictions (whatever, exactly, they were.)

But I think a narrative I can come to terms with is it’s not through Jesus death we’re saved (certainly not as a blood sacrifice), but through Jesus’ life. His life was an example of total obedience to God, absolute love for the other, and he lived what it truly was to be human.

Whether his death had theological intent or was simply a reflection of how far Jesus would go for his beliefs, its power either way comes through the life and example Jesus set.

Again, his resurrection, physical or otherwise, is more importantly understood as the continuing of Jesus’ message.

And I feel like I need to leave a quick note here, because I know I will have lost a few readers with these last few paragraphs, which have become broader statements of faith rather than reason.

I have argued before (in a fun way…using Doctor Who) that narrative is far more important than truth claim. I think religion is best understood as narrative rather than statements of truth. We do best not to use the suspect distinction of ‘faith’ and ‘reason’, where faith is just a crutch to hold on to baseless beliefs, but instead understand that any religious belief is a homogenous blend of fact and story.

This might sound weird at first, but this is exactly what the gospels are. They offer some insight into the ‘historical Jesus’ but are also full of miracle accounts and stories that almost certainly never took place in the physical world.

Were the writers being deliberately deceitful? I don’t think so, no. They were simply understanding that the power of religious narrative is not in how accurately it pertains to physical or historical truths but instead how insightful it is to the theological narrative it is trying to serve. Or, put more simply, a story’s power is not in how ‘real’ it is but in how ‘true’ it is and they can be two different things.

I feel like I may have gone off on a slight detour there, but the point was a story as powerful as that of Jesus has an immense value that is undermined when we insist on only understanding it according to nasty, outdated narratives that are nothing more than the build-up of tradition (not Jesus’ teaching) that we are too afraid to jettison.

Conclusion

So actually, when we understand the Easter story as the conclusion to an inspirational man’s life, I don’t think it is horrific. It’s the story of Jesus dying for his beliefs and those beliefs living on through his disciples, his followers and his church. But, I don’t think Jesus’ death should be the primary focus of the Christian faith, and instead his exemplary life should take centre stage.

When we are bold enough to throw away the troubling idea of blood sacrifice (which has a lot to do with a specific interpretation of Pauline theology and little to do with Jesus) and to look at the story anew we are left with something potentially much more enriching, much more relevant and much more human.

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