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Sunday, July 26, 2009, 11:39 PM
The rational mind cannot accept self-contradiction. I want to explore the self-contradiction within one of the most basic themes in Christian doctrine--sin.
I cannot get a coherent definition of sin. Christian apologists keep shifting the meaning back and forth. Is it a fallen state of being? Or is it the commission of reprehensible acts?
"Well,” they tell me, “the reprehensible acts we commit are the result of our fallen state of being."
I see. And I am in a fallen state because Adam and Eve got suckered by a serpent in the Garden of Eden. So they disobeyed God and ate of the tree of knowledge. If that was a sin, how could it happen? Our fallen state is the result of what they did, which means they committed a sin BEFORE there was such a thing as a fallen state. How can that be?
“Well, yes, that’s true, but you see, God gave them free will, and they chose to sin by disobeying him.”
Oh. So being in a fallen state has nothing to do with sin as a committed act, because Adam and Even committed a sinful act before the fall. But let that pass. So now, we are all sinners, but if we accept Jesus as lord and savior then we are washed clean of sin and we can have the Holy Spirit dwell within us. So does this not mean that Christians are perfect?
“Oh, no!" they declare fervently. "We are the LOWLIEST of sinners!"
They are? Then what is all that stuff about God being so holy that he can't abide sin? The Holy Spirit is a manifestation of God, yet this manifestation of God is ensconced inside sinners of unusual lowliness! How does he stand it?
"You see, we are forgiven for our sin."
Aha! So I guess God CAN abide sin after all, as long as we are contrite about it. I am supposed to be contrite about the fact that Adam and Eve disobeyed God. But where is God's own responsibility in all this? He placed two innocents in a garden where he had to know that the most dangerous serpent in the world was lurking—but he did not warn them. He placed them in the path of temptation and issued an order for them not to give in to temptation—but he did not tell them why. And when they get duped by the serpent, God kicks them out of Eden and consigns all of humanity to hellfire EXCEPT for those who praise him for setting up this situation. What would we think of a human parent who did that?
"Well, we don't judge God by human standards."
Oh, I see. We are to praise God’s holiness as he does things we would abhor as monstrous sin if done by a person. We are to call something good even though we cannot recognize it as good.
Excuse me. My head is exploding.
Saturday, July 18, 2009, 11:01 PM
After a few years of church attendance, I stopped -- that was many years ago. Spiritually, it was the best thing I ever did. One of the reasons I stopped going to churches was that Christian doctrine seemed at once blasphemous and self-contradictory. The blasphemy just felt wrong; the self-contradiction demonstrated, at least to me, that it is wrong. I want to present the particular doctrinal issue that I had to reject as an affront to rationality. It has to do with... The Devil!
If the angel Lucifer was created as a perfect being, how could he have rebelled against God? Yes, in theory, having free will, he could choose to rebel; but in actuality, he would not have made that choice. A perfect being would freely make the perfect choice, which is to obey God; conversely, only a flawed being would make the flawed choice of rebelling against God. By definition, a perfect being would never willfully choose to do wrong, because that would be perverse, and perversion is incompatible with perfection. So if the very act of choosing to rebel against God is clear proof of imperfection, then the notion that Lucifer was created as a perfect being who perversely chose to rebel against God is self-contradictory. But if Lucifer was created as a flawed being, should we regard him as the author of sin or as its first victim? And if God created Lucifer as an imperfect being, then is it not God who is really responsible for sin and all of its dire consequences in the world since the beginning? And then how can we say that God is holy -- so holy that he cannot abide sin?
I asked this question of the pastor at the church I was attending at the time. He looked at me for a moment with mute incomprehension, as if I had suddenly started speaking in some obscure foreign language. Then he told me about Lucifer having free will, thereby demonstrating that he had completely missed the point. Over the years, I have posed that same question to many religious people, and every one of them without exception has offered the same answer, which uniformly begins, “Well, you see, God gave Lucifer free will…”
I found the same kinds of self-contradiction in concepts of sin and salvation, and it seemed to me that if all these key elements in Christian doctrine make no sense to me, then I am not a Christian at all -- I am a heretic. And so I stopped going to churches. And it was only then that I realized I had been looking for God in the wrong place. All those prayers and hymns of praise and supplication are addressed to some external superbeing, and so I was looking outside of myself. Naturally, I never found God in any church. It was only when I stopped going to church that I realized that God is not an external being but an inner source of spiritual aliveness. And it seemed inevitable -- all those churches seemed, in retrospect, like mausoleums sealed in dogma, no fit place for a living God.
But note! If I say that God is the inner source of spiritual aliveness, I am expressing a personal experience. Personal experiences, by definition, are subjective. The fact that I perceive God that way and found churches to be lifeless does not mean that other people must or should have the same experience. I am not the Faith Police; I don't dictate what other people should and should not believe. I just don't want them to try to dictate what I should believe, especially when the doctrine they want me to believe strikes me as literally unbelievable -- for I am literally incapable of believing a doctrine shot through with self-contradiction.
Friday, July 17, 2009, 12:27 AM
If the saying is true, that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, then my mind must be truly tiny. Inconsistency and self-contradiction drive me bonkers. It is an offense against rationality to simultaneously promote two ideas that are mutually contradictory.
What about consistency in matters of faith? Christians may quote Hebrews 13:8, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." Well, that sounds like consistency. Morever, Christian conservatives tend to be suspicious of change (unless it involves a change back to what they imagine was a better time in the past), also suggesting that they prefer consistency.
1. God supposedly approves of such traits as honesty, generosity, and courtesy, and disapproves of such acts as theft, murder, and perjury. God's standards, in short, seem consistent with conventional social norms. In fact, the religious view is that those social norms came about because God gave us laws that promote those views.
2. However, in some Biblical passages, especially from the Hebrew scriptures, God is portrayed as committing acts that would be classified as atrocities and war crimes if committed by a human being. In 1 Sam. 15:3, for example, God orders Saul to slaughter all of the Amalekites including their nfants and animals, and seethes when Saul spares one. In human affairs, that would be called genocide. But when questioned on this, the scriptural literalists reply, "We cannot apply human standards of good and evil to God."
Oh. So God has given us the law that forbids murder, and that is why we consider murder to be a bad thing. But when God commits murder on a population-wide scale, it is a manifestation of his holiness. Is anyone else bothered by this inconsistency, this direct self-contradiction?
Is God then a hypocrite, lke the parent who tells a child, "Do as I say, not as I do"? Well, let's consider some alternatives. Maybe God set up laws for humanity but follows other principles himself (after all, he's... well... God!). All right. But how can we say then that God is good if some of the things he does are horrible? We have no right to call something good if it looks evil to us. The Bible itself says "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil" (Isa 5:20).
Is God really evil, as the Matheists believe? They start with the same Bible-based notions as fundamentalist Christians and therefore end up believing the same blasphemy; but from there, they reach the logical conclusion that God is a vain, chronically dyspeptic tyrant, whereas the fundamentalists reach the piously hypocritical conclusion that God's infinite holiness either permits him or requires him to wipe out whatever displeases him.
Or is God simply not as portrayed in the Bible? Ah! Once you are no longer shackled to the notion that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, all seeming paradoxes and inconsistencies start disappearing.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009, 11:21 PM
Lots of things can be taken on faith without straying into the darkness of irrationality. As I wrote previously, some hard-core atheists, acting like the appointed guardians of the term "rational," insist that everything other than acceptance of evidence-based concepts represents irrationality. But I think it is meaningless as well as unfair to use the same term, laden with pejorative connotations about mental fitness, to describe belief in things that are possible but unproven and belief in things that are impossible. Indeed, belief in things that are shown to be factually false or logically self-contradictory is irrational (specifically, delusional), but I will not apply the same term to belief in things that, if not proven true, have at least not been proven false.
Thus, it is irrational to believe that God literally planted a fully formed human male on a planet then just 6 days old, a few thousand years ago -- a literal interpretation of this religious tale conflicts directly with incontrovertible geological evidence relating to the age of the Earth. But if we accept the geological time-frame, I can propose at least 3 scenarios to explain the origin of life on Earth: (1) random reactions between organic molecules in the primordial oceans resulted in the spontaneous formation of a self-sustaining object exhibiting the processes we associate with living things; (2) life arrived on Earth in the form of spores from space, as proposed by the 19th century chemist Svante Arrhenius; and (3) God created a microorganism and then allowed it to evolve and diversify over the ensuing eons. All of these scenarios lie in the realm of the possible -- that which has not been proved or disproved. They are not supported by evidence, yet they are not irrational in the sense that young-Earth creationism is irrational. Lacking proof that something is true is not the same as having proof that it is false.
At this point, atheists may invoke Occam's Razor, the logical principle that says, in essence, that among contrasting explanations for some phenomenon, the one requiring the fewest unsubstantiated assumptions should take precedence over all others. And of the 3 origin-of-life scenarios outlined above, the last requires the assumption that there is a god, and therefore should be rejected. Maybe, maybe not. All 3 require great assumptions -- that conditions in the primordial oceans were really that favorable to the spontaneous emergence of life, and that spores from some other world reached Earth and found a hospitable environment (and we won't even ask how life emerged on the Planet of the Spores). Moreover, the logic behind following the Razor applies mainly when there is something at stake in the decision; what is at stake in a question whose answer can never be known?
So what does rational faith look like? Belief in things that are possible; non-delusional belief.
By the way -- I have no argument with atheism. Belief is a personal matter; what counts is how we act in this world, and most of the atheists I know are at least as decent human beings as the religious people I know.
Monday, July 13, 2009, 12:02 AM
No, the title is NOT an oxymoron. We can believe things based on objective evidence, but there is no point in calling such beliefs "faith." We can believe things based on our own instinctive sense even if there is no objective evidence to support it--that is faith. What we CANNOT believe are things that are demonstrably false or self-contradictory--to believe such things is not faith but delusion.
But what about rationality? Where does that fit in? Ah--that can be a contentious question. To some hard-core atheists, a belief held in the absence of supportive evidence is, by definition, irrational. I disagree with that view, not least because of the negative connotations associated with that term (irrationality connotes confusion, delusion, or mental incompetence). "No!" they reply. "That is your interpretation. The word just means not rational--not based on rational thought. If it is rational to believe things based on evidence, then it is irrational to believe things in the absence of evidence."
Very neat. But tricky. I reserve the term irrationality to describe the situation in which a belief is held despite clear proof that it is factually false or logically self-contradictory. Faith, to me, describes a belief held in the absence of ANY evidence that supports or refutes it. It is not what must be true because there is evidence to support it, but what might be true because there is no evidence to refute it.
In essence, we have 3 realms of ideas that we may encounter: that which is proven to be true, that which is proven to be false, and that which is unproven. The first realm represents facts, and to believe proven facts requires no faith. The second represents untruths, and to believe proven lies reflects not faith but delusion. The third represents possibilities, and here is where faith can exist. We are not obligated to accept all possibilities just because they might be true, or to reject all possibilities just because they might be false. In the realm of possibilities--ideas that have been neither proved nor disproved--we are as free to believe as to disbelieve, based on whatever happens to float our individual boats.
Next: What does rational faith look like?