02 November 2000

Problems with Rich's Problems with Christianity and Religion

Problems with Problems with Christianity

If personality resides in the soul, then how can drugs and brain damage affect it?

We do not have souls — we are souls. We are not our personalities. Our personalities are mental constructs that we build in order to relate to each other and to ourselves. If your personality is destroyed you will survive in a state of "flat affect" until you build another one. I know. I've been there. So, I am unimpressed with your point about personality. Similarly, we are not our temperament, which is largely biochemically and neurologically determined, and which in turn strongly influences personalities we build around it.

A stronger and more fundamental point is that our phenomenal consciousness (our basic awareness of the phenomena in the world around us) can be severely affected by brain disorders or damage. For example, a stroke can literally take away not only one's ability to perceive anything in the left part of one's visual field, it can take away the very concept of left, and the memory that one once had the concept. Some stroke patients must turn 270 degrees to the right in order to get into a position they once would have managed by turning 90 degrees to the left. (See The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks.) To me, that is a much stronger argument that our consciousness resides in our material brains.

On the other hand, perhaps our brains are "quantum switchboards" between our souls and our bodies, as argued in detail by neurophysiologist J. C. Eccles. (See for example, "Brain and Freewill," and "How Dogmatic can Materialism Be?" both by J. C. Eccles, in Consciousness and the Brain, Globus, Maxwell and Savodnik, eds., Plenum, New York, 1976.) Perhaps we just get so hooked into perceiving, thinking, and feeling with our wetware, that when it gets damaged, we get stuck working with a faulty interface. This suggests that the early stages of the after-life experience could be rather minimalist (including, suggestively, three days of unconsiousness), as portrayed in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Of course, that begs the question of what is a soul. My current guess is that since spacetime undergoes quantum oscillations on scales smaller than the so-called Planck Length, the quantum spacetime foam may sustain patterns complex enough to be called alive (our souls), just as much larger and less complex atoms can form structures complex enough to be called alive (our bodies).

Still, I must admit that since you are not attempting to give a proof, but are merely arguing from the weight of the evidence, you have the last word on this: The weight of the evidence points to our doom. Religion has an "in spite of" quality in this regard, called trotsdem by the German theologians.

Gods were invented by people to explain the universe. Science does that for us now, so we no longer need gods.

Science has also begun to realize the limits to which it can go. Goedel's theorem states that any non-trivial, self-consistent, finite set of axioms must be incomplete — i.e., within the confines of any such system, it is always possible to construct propositions whose truth or falsehood cannot be established. The implication for science is that there will always be unknowns, no matter how large a body of self-consistent, experimentally verified theory we construct. We can't "know it all" through the methods of science.

On the other hand, I need God for companionship rather than physics lessons. I recognize the the astrophysical account of cosmogenesis as factually true, but for my soul that truth is empty compared to the mythic truth of the Biblical account. That is, while I know that God did not make Man from the clay with His own hands, I feel that all of us were individually called into existence by God for his delight and suffering in us. Perhaps this is because I need to be desired by God, if only as his fool.

[BTW - Goedel's theorem also applies to morality: Within the confines of any finite set of moral laws, it will always be possible to put the moralist in a situation in which his or her actions will be morally ambiguous, at best. For me, this is why Forgiveness and Reconciliation are necessary for Justice.]

Science has shown the stories of creation and the flood to be false.

Science has shown them to be false as history, not as myth. The truth of myth is in its meaning for us, in the messages in its metaphors, that can stir in us a level of awareness that no other form of interpersonal communication can. That is to say, the truth of myth is not in the myth itself, but in the truth it awakens in the hearers or readers. And so I say that the accounts of the creation and the flood are true, just not literally so. Besides, the universe began with a "Let there be light" BIG BANG, and one school of paleobiologists believe that life began when certain kinds of clay with repeating layers served as a substrate on which primitive amino acids assembled into RNA-like self-replicating proteins (God making us from clay, as it were). Moreover, it seems that about 10,000 years ago there was a catastrophic refilling of the dry Mediterranean basin as the Atlantic spilled over the widening cliff that is now the Strait of Gibraltar (possibly giving rise to the Sumerian flood story). Coincidences perhaps, but kinda spooky, eh guy?

Why was demon possession common in Jesus' time, but hardly known in the Old Testament, and replaced today by the DSM-IIIR?

I don't feel it necessary to believe in demons in order to believe in God. What I do find interesting though, is that Jesus seemed to be an effective faith-healer. Whatever the problems of the people whom he encountered, he seemed to be able to relieve them of quite a few of them, which is impressive to me, even if their problems were psychosomatic. See, however, James Randi's The Faith Healers, and Monty Python's "The Life of Brian," for additional commentary. See also Delbanco's The Death of Satan, for what we lose when we lose the sense of evil.

There is no justification for eternal punishment in hell. Hell as described in the Bible is sadism.

Hell is not described in the Bible. It is alluded to. As for eternal punishment, I would like to be a Universalist — one who claims that EVERYONE will wind up with God in Heaven, no matter what. But without some special revelation to that effect, claiming so is as arrogant as the Fundamentalists who claim that nobody but themselves will go to Heaven (also not described in the Bible). So, I compromise and take the way out given by C. S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce. The people in hell choose to be there because they can't stand to fully know who they are before God. Therefore, they flee God's Presence, or at least their own awareness of it, and that flight is hell.

How can people be happy in heaven with loved ones in hell?

C. S. Lewis has an explanation in The Great Divorce, which I don't buy. You've got me on this one. It's why I am tempted to be a Universalist.

Christianity asserts that more than 50% of all people will go to hell.

Where the hell did you get that number? Christians assert all kinds of things, but the Bible is vague and contradictory about the number of the saved. I like to think it is because the numbers or percentages are "above our pay grade" to worry about. But it is easy to work oneself into so twisted up a state of personality that it would be painful to know oneself before God, i.e., to confess. I suspect that is the condition of the majority of the human race. I also suspect that in the end, we get a lot of help with that problem.

The Bible is vague and contradictory on the one point that should be most important: how to be saved.

Yes, Amen! "With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Salvation would have to be a rather paltry thing to be reducible to a simple formula. For me as a Christian, it reduces to the moment in which Jesus says, "Follow me." Well, what does that mean? In the case of the disciples, the reaction was spontaneous and physical — they got up and went where Jesus went. For me in this latter day, it is something that is taking me a lifetime to understand and practice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Cost of Discipleship gives the best explanation I know. [You may recall that Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who returned to Germany after the Nazi takeover, publicly opposed them, and was martyred in the concentration camps for doing so.]

The plan of redemption makes no sense. There are several theories about why Christ had to die, and all of them are unintelligible.

They all meet some psychological need on the part of some group of believers, however. See Freud's provocative but flawed, Moses and Monotheism for some roundabout hints concerning this one. In particular, considering how hard and painful this life can be, and that it is God's will that it be so, let us mention the idea that in Christ, [warning: heresy!] the current of atonement may flow both ways: as a man, he atones for humanity's capacity for evil, while as God, he atones for the hardness of our lives. The at-one-ment, the reconciliation of humanity and God, is that in Christ, God died for humanity and a man died for God. The reconciliation is completed by the resurrection — the forgiving and undoing of Christ's death, and the reuniting of humanity and divinity in him. I think that the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection are a powerful message of salvation that proclaim the possibility of a common and good destiny for all of humanity. And the obligation on our part is as it always was, "to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God." But rather than thinking of it as obedience to an external power as the price of a ticket to paradise, I think of it as a spontaneous response to being loved and desired by God. And, unlike orgasms, if you don't feel it, there is no need to fake it.

The stories of the resurrection are inconsistent.

The eyewitness stories of any event immediately just past are usually inconsistent. Given that the Christian community didn't think to write their stories down until they were at least second-hand, what else would you expect? And yes, they didn't start writing anything down until the Apostles started dying off, because they thought that the world would end before the Apostles died. Only then did they realize that there might be descendants who would benefit from a written record.

It is unfair that some people got to witness physical proof of miracles while the rest of us are commanded to believe on hearsay.

Absolutely. I agree with Tom Paine that you need not believe hearsay. I side with Paul Tillich in asserting that there is an existential, experiential component of faith. And if you are not called to faith, maybe you are called to atheism.

Why did God design the world so that some animals have to eat other animals, why did he make gross and disgusting parasites, and why did he let the majority of all species that ever existed go extinct?

The world is such that a rational creature can figure out how to survive in it without having to propitiate God to make the sun rise every day. A rational, rather than a magical, world is a tough world, where God doesn't run to fix things for you whenever they don't go your way. As the Tao-Te Ching says, "Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat all creatures like straw dogs." We get to live in a world in which we can do what we want without reference or deference to God, constrained only by physical reality —- by our needs, and prodded only by our pains. And since we seem to have evolved from prior living things, I make bold to state that evolution seems to be part of God's will, and with evolution come creatures that exploit every available ecological niche, (including parasitic and carniverous ones) and extinction of creatures when those niches change.

Jesus and his followers thought the end of the world was coming in one generation.

Indeed they did. So what? Jesus was God living life as an ordinary guy, with one or two extraordinary talents. One would hardly expect an ordinary guy to know the future.

There is no good reason to believe the canon while rejecting the apocrypha.

Whoa! Please see the introductions to the canonical books of the Bible and to the apocryphal books in the New Oxford Annotated Study Bible.

If one and only one religion is true why didn't God make it obvious to everyone which one it is.

Is one and only one religion true? I think all religions, as well as atheism, are contaminated with both truth and falsehood. I believe we are surrounded by truth too great to be contained in a finite number of dogmatic statements. I believe we cannot escape from the truth. I feel called to explore that truth as a Christian, but that doesn't prevent me from encouraging someone else to know the truth by a different, but effectively parallel path.

If God wanted us to have free will, why does he threaten us with hell? It isn't free will if you've got a gun at your head.

Isaac Bashevis Singer said, "We have to believe in free will — we have no choice." Let me ask you, would it be heaven for you if some really nasty evil son-of-a-bitch gets in and insists on remaining one? I think heaven is the presence of God, and the really nasty evil SOBs avoid it. Wherever else they go, that's hell.

God deliberately hardened Pharoah's heart against Moses and the Israelites. Why would God cause someone to sin? Why would God order the Israelites to commit genocide against the Canaanites?

Hardening Pharoah's heart is a pious turn of phrase. That's how the writers of Genesis and Exodus saw it. As for the order for genocide against the Canaanites — see the news accounts of the Kahane Chai party for how that one got started. I think that is the record of the self-righteous bigotry of the chosen people. The archeological evidence indicates that the surviving Canaanites managed to promulgate idol-worship among the Hebrews. And if you want to attain purity of a fledgling faith, you eliminate the non-believers, especially if you are a war-like and undiciplined tribe to begin with, and they are lovely ladies who want to raise the kids they have with you in their own religion. Otherwise stated: "The Jews are God's Chosen People, which is no great honor considering the competition."

There is evidence internal to the Bible that much of the pentateuch was a pious fraud conveniently discovered by priests in the time of King Josiah.

See Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliot Friedman for the full story on this one. One can go further — noting that Chronicles seems to be a whitewashed version of Kings, and the list goes on and on. So what? The Bible is not a single book — it is a library. It is the story of a people's attempt to be the people of God. It chronicles their failures as well as their successes, and their vain interpretations, as well as their inspired insights. It's all meant to be there for us in its wretchedness and in its glory. While many people debate the historical or scientific truth of this or that part of the Bible (and some parts bear up well in the light of recent archeological discoveries, while others do poorly), what really matters is the living Truth that the Bible can awaken in its readers and hearers.

Problems with Why I Believe there are no Gods

You have most definitely not defined God out of existence. (See The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams for how to do this with a Babel Fish.) What you have done is to amass a convincing weight of evidence that the god you expected (and at one time in your life wanted) does not exist. On the other hand, the god you once wanted was a concoction of the inner Freudian/Jungian "demons" haunting your former Christian community mixed with a few of your own. I think that we are both glad that that particular god is a fiction of fevered imagination. But you have yet to convince me, a former atheist, that there are no gods at all, including the God who is beyond all our imaginings and who comes to us as a complete surprise.

Rich Daniel, former Skeptic in Residence at VCBC, committed suicide in the early fall of 2000 A.D. In his memory, I reposted at VCBC two pieces he had sent me from his now defunct website, and with which I profoundly disagree. Here I post a rebuttal to those pieces that I emailed to Rich in 1996. My synopses of Rich's points are in italics, below which I state my counter-arguments. Occasionally, I first point out how he could have supported his position more strongly. Rich said he would think about these points. His fatal depression prevented his reply.

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