Category: "faith/skepticism"

Religious Autobiography 1980-1998

I know that religion is not considered a topic for polite conversation, but that's never stopped me from talking about it on this site. I've written about religion as a pastor, as a former member of a strange group and more recently as an atheist. But I haven't yet written up an overview of my history with religion and how I have arrived where I am today. Until now. This is going to be divided up into multiple parts.

My mother was raised on a dairy farm and her family went to a Baptist church in the country. My dad's parents were divorced. His mom is an atheist now (I'm not sure about back then), but he lived with his dad and stepmother. His stepmother is a Methodist and the couple also ran the local liquor store. Shortly after getting married, Dad went on a quest to find the right religion. He did a lot of reading and talking with people he knew. He was visited by the preacher from the Church of Christ in Butler, MO (about 10 miles from Adrian, where he lived). Soon Mom and Dad were members of that church and as far back as I can remember we drove to Butler every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening for services.

The Church of Christ is one of those non-denominational denominations. There is no church hierarchy outside of local congregations. Most of the churches do not use instrumental music in worship services. There are several splinter groups divided by various important theological issues such as

Can a church building have a kitchen?
Is Sunday school allowed?
Should churches send money to missionary and benevolent organizations?
Can communion be taken from multiple cups or only from one shared cup like in the Bible?
Is it ok to have a paid preacher?

My church answered those questions like this: no, yes, no, multiple, yes. Various congregations answer those questions in different ways, and they all refuse to recognize the soundness of any church that doesn't agree with their set of answers.

So, as I grew up I heard 2 sermons a week and had 2 Bible classes per week. Mixed in with the normal Christian teaching about sin and salvation (and maybe even overshadowing them) were sermons about the evils of pianos and refrigerators in church and how congregations who form organizations to help them cooperate for missionary work were headed down the path toward Catholicism.

And if they were that hard on fellow churches of Christ, just imagine how damned other denominations were. I was frequently told how most of the churches fell into apostasy not long after the New Testament was completed. The Reformation just substituted Protestant heresy for Catholic heresy (although they never seemed to mind quoting Luther, Calvin and Wesley when decrying instrumental music).

But then, as I was told, some humble preachers in America saw through all the religious confusion, left their Protestant churches and started the Restoration Movement. The true form of New Testament religion was restored at last. But all was not well in God's kingdom. Soon liberals infiltrated the one true church and they had to be ousted. The Disciples of Christ and the churches of Christ officially split in 1906. Some of the apostates had a partial change of heart and in 1926 a group of conservative Disciples of Christ split to form the Independent Christian Church. They still used instruments, but in other ways, they resembled the doctrines of the churches of Christ.

From 1906 to the present, the churches of Christ continued to divide over the issues I listed above and others. Lucky for me, the church I was raised in happened to belong to the one splinter group who was following the Bible correctly.

One of the few interchurch fellowships I had was at the Florida College Summer Camp at the Lake of the Ozarks. Kids from our type of churches of Christ from all over Missouri and Arkansas met for a week. Now I realize that most churches that do summer camps couldn't fit all of the interested youth from two states, ages 9-18 into a single week of camp. But that never occurred to me at the time. I loved it. I made some good friends there, including Tim, who plays a big role in the rest of my story.

One of the purposes of the camp is to recruit kids to go to Florida College, a junior college in the Tampa Bay area. As far as I know, it's the only Bible college that my type of churches of Christ considered sound. Several of my friends were planning on going there and Tim and I flew down for a college visit during my junior year (his senior year). I think we were both genuinely undecided at that time, but the trip was kind of disappointing. The library was pathetic, we had some strange experiences in the dorm we stayed (including one resident walking around naked with rubber mask on his face), the academics seemed weak and we knew how much it would cost. Neither of our families had a lot of money for college. My brother went to FC and was able to transfer his credits to a university, graduate and start a good career, so I don't want to sell the school short too much. But Tim and I weren't sure it was worth the cost.

Tim went to Truman State University in Kirksville, MO on a good scholarship. Several of our friends were disappointed, including me. I was still leaning toward FC even though I had doubts. I decided to apply to some in-state schools, including Truman, just to see what kind of scholarships I could get. And so that when I was ready to transfer after getting my associate's degree at FC, I would already have been approved by some schools. Truman accepted me and offered me a $4000 a year scholarship. FC accepted me and offered a $200 scholarship. Truman, with in-state public school tuition was shaping up to be a near-free education. FC would have put my parents in debt. I visited Truman and was impressed, especially by their gigantic library. After much agonizing, I reluctantly decided to part ways with the rest of my friends and join Tim at Truman.

Once again, many people I knew were disappointed in this decision. I almost talked myself out of it at my last year at camp just weeks before leaving for college. No one really pressured me, but I really questioned my decision. Some of my friendships would never be the same. Could my faith handle going to a secular school? I even called home in tears asking my mom if it was still possible to change my mind and go to FC. She told me it was my decision and they would make it work if I wanted to do it. On the last few days of camp I asked advice from a lot of people and I spent the bus ride home mulling the decision. I finally decided to stick with Truman State. It's strange to think about how different my life would have been if I had made the opposite decision.

That was a turning point in my religious life and in my life as a whole. I don't really remember if I was having doubts about my church's claim to be the the one true faith. I know that Tim told me about getting involved with a campus ministry that (gasp!) used instruments in worship. I remember being concerned but intrigued. I intended to look into this campus ministry and possibly get involved myself. So, I must have had some doubts about the CoC even before going to a state school.

Part 2: Religious Autobiography 1998-2002

Who's worse, Hitler or God?

Hitler and God, BFF

It's hard to imagine anyone who is more evil than Adolf Hitler. But think for a minute about why we consider him to be so bad. The worst things he did were also done or commanded by the God of the Old Testament. I should clarify that I think that Yahweh does not actually exist outside of the imagination, so this list is an evaluation of the Biblical concept of God and a condemnation of the ancient tribe who reportedly did these evil things while claiming that their god commanded them. I hope it will cause modern Christians think twice about saying that the God of the Bible is a loving and perfectly moral being.

Evil stuff Hitler Yahweh
Advocated racial purity
Seized land that belonged to other nations
Executed homosexuals
Cruel medical and genetic experiments
Tortures people even after they're dead

(Click on the checkmarks to see relevant evidence.)

Before you rise to the defense of Yahweh, please consider this statement:

To devote one's moral reflections to constructing elaborate rationales for past genocides, human sacrifices, and the like is to invite applications of similar reasoning to future actions.

-Elizabeth Anderson (The Portable Atheist, 340)

Another view on slavery and the Bible

When I discussed slavery and the Bible a few weeks ago, I tried to deal with the various responses that I might hear from people who believe that the Bible is inerrant. Apparently there was one that I didn't think of, but I heard it today. I was talking with someone who believes that most of the Bible is the inspired word of God and I asked him what he thinks about the passages that condoned slavery. He said that he didn't see anything wrong with slavery because the Bible doesn't condemn it. I pressed him on this to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding. He confirmed that he sees nothing inherently wrong with owning another human, punishing him or her with beatings and using them for forced labor. He said that he is not racist and that he doesn't want to be a slave or own a slave now, but if the legality of slavery was put to a vote, he wouldn't bother to go to the polls to vote for or against it.

Plus one point for being consistent with his belief that the Bible is God's word. Minus one million points for moral reprehensibility.

Good quote

I came across a quote that pretty well sums up my current view of religion:

What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof. - Christopher Hitchens

Which is very similar to

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. - Carl Sagan

So, if people want to accept an idea that has no proof behind it, fine, that's their right. But if they ask me why I don't accept it, I feel no obligation to attempt to disprove their idea. The burden of proof is on the person asserting something. I don't assert that there is no god, but I live my life without a belief in god. If you want to assert something with no proof, feel free, but don't expect me to take your belief seriously. I am just as likely to dismiss your belief as your are to dismiss someone's belief in fairies, astrology or unicorns. Perhaps that seems disrespectful. Why does religion deserve more respect than any other unproven idea?

To be fair, if I assert something without proof (as I'm sure do), I don't think I have a right to expect my ideas to be respected and taken seriously, either. They can be and often are dismissed. It's fun to discuss unproven ideas, but anyone asserting an unproven idea should remember that the burden of proof is on them.

Is God Imaginary?

God Is Imaginary is a site that offers 50 simple proofs that the Christian God is not real. The articles are good and should give any Christian plenty to think about, but I'm not sure how I feel about their use of the word "proof." I think that many varieties of Christian faith today have been winnowed down over the years so that they're almost impossible to disprove.

Early on in the Christian myth God is someone who can walk, talk and wrestle with a human. Then he withdrew to Heaven, that place up in the sky. The story has Jesus going to Heaven by way of the clouds and promising to return by the same path. We've taken rockets beyond the clouds and the atmosphere and we don't see a gold-plated kingdom floating up there. We see only the vacuum of space. But now God and Heaven have moved to "another dimension" or "outside of space and time."

Another example of this can be found in prayer. The stories say that humans used to talk directly to God and he talked back. Then he only communicated through prophets. Early in the Christian era (and among some denominations today) it was thought that any believer could do miracles and expect answers to prayers. But today, most liberal Christians admit that they don't expect prayers to be answered as the Bible promises. Or, if they refuse to admit that, then they're quick to excuse God for not giving them what they ask for. Some go so far as to downplay prayers that ask for something in favor of seeing prayer as an act that conveys a spiritual benefit to the person praying. Early Christians and modern fundamentalists would see this as a very weak and non-Biblical view of prayer.

So, in my opinion, today's Christians can choose to divorce themselves from historical Christianity or they can divorce themselves from reality.

Prayer is something that can be tested. The Bible promises that prayers will be answered.

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
- Mark 11:24

You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
- John 14:14

Yet study after study has shown that prayer has no supernatural effect. When you pray for something, it's no more likely to happen than if you didn't pray. Many Christians, aware of this fact, are careful to not pray for anything unless there's a decent chance that it will happen anyway. When it does, they rejoice in the power of prayer. When it doesn't, well, that was just God's will.

This video makes the case that prayer is just another superstition:


But what about liberal Christians who admit that the passages I quoted above are not inerrant or at the very least don't mean what they seem to mean? Perhaps they value intercessory prayer for the calming effect it has on all involved and the social connections that it creates. Knowing that others are thinking about you and praying for you can have a real subconscious effect on a person. Studies on the efficacy of prayer have to control for these factors by making sure that patients don't know whether they're being prayed for or not. Why would we want to spoil the effect by pointing out that prayer actually has no supernatural effect? Preventing stories like this one is one reason. And I think we can get all the social and psychological benefits of prayer using completely rational methods.

If you're a believer, then what convinces you that God is not imaginary? Is your belief subject to falsification? If so, what evidence would prove to you that God is not real? If not, then can you claim that your beliefs are any more rational than Islam, FSM or Scientology?

Slavery and the Bible

The BibleI have a question for my friends and readers who consider the Bible to be the inerrant word of God. Some of my friends are Christians, but they're willing to admit that at least parts of the Bible are not inerrant. You guys are off the hook for today. Those of you who say that the Bible is inerrant should really think about this question and leave a comment (or email me) with your take on the subject. Here's the question.

Why does the Bible condone slavery?

I have asked this question to a few believers and I have yet to hear a good explanation. Here are a few of the things I have heard.

"The slavery mentioned in the Bible is not like the slavery practiced in pre-Civil War United States." The first difference they point out is that Biblical slavery was based on economic class rather than on ethnicity. I'm not sure why it would be preferable to turn a person into property because they are poor rather than because they are a of different race, but more importantly, that's just incorrect.

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

Leviticus 25:44-46

Sounds to me like some slavery condoned in the Bible was based on ethnicity. There was a version of slavery for Hebrew people that was less harsh. It included freedom after seven years (with some exceptions). But the rules for enslaving foreigners were different.

The second part of that explanation is that slavery in Biblical times was less harsh.

If a man beats his male or female slave with a club and the slave dies as a result, the owner must be punished. But if the slave recovers within a day or two, then the owner shall not be punished, since the slave is his property.

Exodus 21:20-21 (NIV)

This sounds pretty similar to US law. There were cases of slave owners being executed for killing their own slaves. Actually, I think the Biblical version of the rule is worse. It says that if you beat the slave and he dies right away, you're to be punished (not necessarily executed -- apparently killing a slave is not as grave an offense as adultery, homosexuality or breaking the Sabbath). If you beat the slave and he dies from those injuries, but he takes more than two days to die, then you're fine. The English Standard Version translates the passage a little more clearly:

When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.

Exodus 21:20-21 (ESV)

This guy lived more than 2 days after his beating, so it would have been ok under OT law.So, when people explain Biblical slavery by saying that it really wasn't all that bad, then they either don't know what the Bible says or they have a strange idea of what "not that bad" means.

"The Bible records real history and tells about all sorts of bad things that people did. Just because it mentions that Israelites held slaves doesn't mean that it was condoned." The two passages I quoted above come from laws that were supposedly received directly from God and they certainly condone slavery. If you think that the Bible is telling the truth when it claims that these laws came from God, then this explanation won't get you anywhere.

"Slavery was common back then. These laws actually made Israel more civilized than surrounding countries." If the God of the universe, a morally perfect being, was going to give laws to a tribe of people, wouldn't he set his sights a little higher than this? Why not just ban slavery? Besides, this smacks of moral relativism, which goes against the idea of a timeless moral standard from God. Christians can explain away some of the awful things in the Old Testament by pointing out that they were overturned in the New Testament. That's not the case with slavery.

"The abolition movement was led by Christians." This is true, but irrelevant to the question about why the Bible condones slavery. Many Christians, especially Quakers and Catholics, fought against slavery, but what religion were the people who fought for slavery? Christian, of course. For example:

[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.

Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.

Jefferson Davis at his home c.1885The Southern Baptist Convention is one of the largest denominations in the country. It was formed because in 1845 a group of southern churches broke off from the Baptist church when it made a rule requiring missionaries to not own slaves. The SBC didn't officially reverse its position on slavery until 1995.

Christians should be proud of the fact that some of their number fought against slavery. They should keep in mind that plenty of the Christians at the time thought that the Bible condoned slavery.

"We don't understand God's ways, but we need to trust him." People generally only resort to this explanation after trying some of the others and failing. These Christians want to believe that the Bible is inerrant and God is loving and just. When they come face to face with a passage that makes it impossible to hold both of those beliefs simultaneously, they either change their thinking or they punt. Once I hear this answer I know to move on. The discussion is over. This idea could be used to justify any belief. It's dangerous.

I know of only one explanation that makes sense. "The Bible condones slavery because it is set a human documents created by a primitive culture. The laws quoted above were not received from God." If someone knows of a better explanation, I'd like to hear it.

PS. If you'd like to learn some trivia about slavery in the Bible (and you like sarcasm), then try taking this quiz.

What if

The BibleHere's a thought experiment. What would happen if some authoritative Christian body, such as the Episcopal Church, came out with a new version of the Bible with the worst of the bad stuff removed? There would be some backlash, of course. But what if the redactions were limited to a short list of indefensible verses? Let's say the new version left out Leviticus 25:44-46. Would Christians protest this new version? Would they fight to have the slavery-condoning verses included? If you are a Christian, would you refuse to use a Bible that excluded those verses?

I have follow-up questions, but I would like to see what people think about the initial question before I bring them out.

Euthyphro dilemma

One common argument for the existence of God is the moral argument, which says that the best explanation for humanity's shared sense of right and wrong is a god who sets an objective standard. I've discussed with the Morality Argument before, but I'd like to bring up one particular question that comes up for people who subscribe to this argument: The Euthyphro dilemma:

ἆρα τὸ ὅσιον ὅτι ὅσιόν ἐστιν φιλεῖται ὑπὸ τῶν θεῶν, ἢ ὅτι φιλεῖται ὅσιόν ἐστιν

Plato first posed the dilemma in the dialogue called EuthyphroWhich translates to "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" When dealing with Christianity, the dilemma can be phrased like this: "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?"

If God commands things because they're moral, then that means there is some standard of morality above and outside of God and he's only passing it on to us.

If something is moral only because he commands it, then morality is arbitrary. If God wanted to declare that genocide is allowed, then it would no longer be evil. If God is the very definition of good, then saying "God is good" is meaningless. You might as well say that that the book 1984 is Orwellian.

The standard Christian response to the dilemma is to say that goodness flows from God and is one with his very nature. I don't think that really avoids the problems of the dilemma, but I'm not bringing this up in order to settle the issue. I only want to point out that there is a dilemma. It doesn't disprove the existence of God, but it does show that the Moral Argument is not without its problems. I think that there are better explanations for our shared morality than god that are simpler, fit better with the facts and raise fewer questions.

Note: I encountered the Euthyphro Dilemma while reading a review of Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig. The review was written by Chris Hallquist and I recommend it. And yes, this is all a thinly veiled excuse to add Greek to a post.

Romney is no Kennedy

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a speech today to deal with concerns about his Mormon faith. Many evangelicals don't consider Mormonism to be a part of orthodox Christianity. It's a voting bloc that Romney can ill afford to lose, yet he's seen his lead in the evangelical stronghold of Iowa slip away in the wake of the meteoric rise of former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee.

When John F. Kennedy faced similar concerns about his Catholic faith in the 1960 Presidential campaign, he gave a speech to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, TX. Romney welcomed the connection between the two candidates, even choosing to deliver his speech in the same state today and to refer directly to Kennedy. I just read the full transcripts of both speeches. You can find them on NPR's website: John F. Kennedy, Mitt Romney.

Naturally, they make some of the same points. Both pledged to not take policy direction from their church leadership. Both said that the specifics of their faith are not as important as their commitment to serve the country. Both refused to become a spokesman for their church. But I'd like to look at a few quotes that show some serious difference in their approaches.


There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator.


While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election.

Kennedy all but apologized for even feeling the need to make the speech. Romney was more eager to talk about faith. Later in the speech Romney goes into much more detail than Kennedy did about his view of Jesus. He avoids the distinctions between the Mormon and Christian views of Jesus. I think he felt the need to make some statement about Jesus because those distinctions are much greater for him than they were for Kennedy. Whether he succeeded in reassuring the evangelical community remains to be seen.


Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.


I believe in an America . . . where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice.

As a secular American, this is the part of the speech that bothered me most. Kennedy at least gives this brief recognition to the non-religious. Romney claims that without faith there can be no freedom. Joe Conason wrote in Salon that "This statement is so patently false that it scarcely deserves refutation." Romney only mentions secularism in a negative way, saying "They are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism. They are wrong." Note that Romney was introduced by George H.W. Bush, who once said that atheists should not be considered citizens.


Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate's religion that are appropriate. I believe there are.


I would not look with favor upon a president working to subvert the First Amendment's guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so. And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test — even by indirection — for it. If they disagree with that safeguard, they should be out openly working to repeal it.

"No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States" (Article VI, section 3 of the US Constitution.) Asking and answering questions about faith certainly doesn't violate the letter of that clause. While Romney mentions this clause later in his speech, he seems to be evoking to avoid getting into doctrinal specifics as much as to uphold a principal he deeply believes in.


In recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life.


I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.

Maybe when it comes down to it these two politicians shared a commitment to the principle of separation, but their different phrasings are striking.

Romney made two more points that are just begging to be corrected.


The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust. We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders - in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge . . .

God wasn't added to our pledge and money until the 1950s. It had more to do with Communism than it did with the founders. Romney doesn't come right out and lie here, but he does juxtapose two ideas with the intent to deceive those who don't know their history.

I was going to save my specific complaints against Mormonism for another day, but with this statement, Romney is asking for it.


It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter - on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.

The Mormon church was against abolition and civil rights. The church did not give full membership rights to blacks until 1978. What did Romney think of the doctrine of his church regarding black people during the 10 years between his 18th birthday and the "revelation" that changed the church's policy?

In Kennedy's speech, he listed several times when he publicly contradicted the official stances of the Catholic church. Is Romney willing to do the same?

Malcolm in the MIddle on God

(via Atheist Media Blog)

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