April 23, 2012

God - a Primitive Superman.

Believers widely portray their god as an all-powerful, all-wise, transcendent and perfect,spiritual being. I contend that modern theologians have reconfigured god from the Bible authors’ original crude conceptions of god as a rather fallible, uber-human with superpowers.

By “uber-human,” I mean a being that is basically human in terms of psychology and emotions, yet possessed of greater intelligence and power. This is how modern humans have usually imagined comic book superheroes. That is, they are generally built on a basic human physical and psychological plan, but with accessory super powers, like Superman and Spiderman.

Surely, the Bible authors thought god and man were very much alike, as attested by Genesis 9:6, “. . . for in the image of God made he man.” For evidence I offer the inclusion of anger in the Biblical conception of god, and the fact that Bible-god occasionally changes his mind about things. Obviously, a “perfect” spirit being does not get angry, nor does he change his mind (or whatever passes for “mind” in a spirit).

Anger has been aptly described as a reaction to a perceived threat to ourselves, our loved ones, our property, our self-image, or some part of our identity. If a being is perfect and all-powerful, then how or why would it feel threatened by anything? This only makes sense if that being was somehow unsure of itself; that is, was less than perfect.

Indeed, there are many Biblical passages which attest to this unsureness, this anger. In Job 38, god upbraids Job for questioning god’s foul treatment of him. This harangue goes on for 71 verses about what business has Job got judging god? He asks, was Job there when he laid the foundations of the earth? “Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?” “Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?” God goes on like this for dozens of examples. I mean, god is seriously pissed off and there is no mistaking it.

The scene with Job is not exceptional; the Bible is full of episodes describing an angry god. In fact, one of the most frequently used words in the Bible is “wrath,” and it is almost always used in connection with god. According to one online dictionary, wrath means, “strong vengeful anger or indignation.”

Anger is a very human emotion, and the Bible’s primitive authors gave their god a very full measure of it. Jesus was quite clear about how we humans should respond to that angry god when he said, "fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matt. 10:28)

But, Bible-god is not just human-like in his anger, he is also human-like in his propensity to change his mind from time to time. Now a perfect spirit being, it would seem, would get things right the first time, and would not be changing its mind. But that would not be an accurate description of Bible-god.

In Exodus 32, the Israelites create a golden calf and god gets angry: “. . . Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them . . .” But Moses pleads with god, reminding him of his promises to the people, and warning him of how the Egyptians will interpret his actions, and god relents – changes his mind: “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. “ Isn’t it apparent in this story that god was unsure of himself; that Moses showed superior reason in convincing god what he should do?

A similar story is found in Genesis 6: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.”

Here, god repents creating man and beast. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “repent” in this context means: (2a) to feel regret or contrition, or (2b) to change one’s mind. So, according to the Bible, god decides he made a mistake in creating humans and changes his mind about keeping them around (except for Noah and family).

Does this sound like a “perfect” being, an all-wise, creative spirit entity? Or does it sound like an angry man with super powers? Does this sound like an omniscient being who knows the future, as modern theologians describe god?

I have searched several Christian apologetics sites to learn how modern Christians explain how god can know the future, on the one hand, yet change his mind, on the other. In researching this subject, and thinking about it, it appears to me that the “explanations” all fall into one of three broad types:

  1. The naive, or special-pleading explanation (God can do anything).
  2. The Bible doesn’t really mean what it says.
  3. The Bible was just made up by many primitive authors and never checked for consistency.

If we were to go with (1), we would be throwing out the rules of logic which have led us out of the caves and into modern societies of relative abundance. After all, god cannot construct a four-sided triangle, nor can he simultaneously “be” and “not be.”

“Explanation” (2) includes too many apologetic “escapes” to even summarize here, but they generally involve disputes concerning translation and convoluted pretzel-logic. For any of them to make sense, we would have to redefine many of the common words we all have been using all of our lives.

Which brings us to my own favorite, number (3). That the authors of the Bible were superstitious primitives should really be beyond dispute. These men included a whole host of imaginary characters in their texts including witches, wizards, sorcerers, demons, ghosts, giants, spirits, angels, dragons and unicorns. These were men who believed disease was caused by demons (Matt. 8:14-16); men who didn’t know where the sun went at night.

And, clearly, the Bible was never checked for internal consistency. When it comes to the “Good Book,” as ye seek, so shall ye find is a truism. It is not all that difficult to find a passage which defends virtually any claim you wish to put forth. If you need a passage to show that god is loving and compassionate, it’s in the Bible. If you want to show god is hateful and cold, that’s in there, too. If you need to show god is patient, it’s there. If you want to show he is quick to anger and punish, that’s there, too. Isn’t it interesting that Bible-god is so much like us?

The Bible was written by dozens of different authors over hundreds of years, so it’s not surprising that their conceptions of god varied and were sometimes even contradictory. When the Bible canon was established by vote, long after the various texts were written, no one bothered to ensure consistency among its parts, and this is how we can be certain that no god oversaw its authorship. It was quite obviously written by many independent and very imaginative men.

Now, modern theologians tell us that god is an extraordinarily esoteric entity; perhaps, “. . . a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence,” (Karen Armstrong), or, not a being at all, but the ground of all being (David Hart). But such explanations are no more than wishful thinking; they do not correlate at all with the descriptions of the Bible’s authors. “Symbols” don’t get angry or change their minds, nor does “pure being.” These apologists are fighting a rear-guard action here; they know that the god described in the Bible bears no resemblance to their descriptions, but they still want to believe and have you believe.

Those primitive authors who wrote the Bible were quite transparent in their depictions of god. Theirs was a crude god of very human characteristics, like anger and indecision; an uber-human, a primitive’s conception of a comic book superhero. If you’re looking for a perfect, transcendent spirit, you won’t find it in the Bible. For that, you’ll have to consult the modern apologists. And this tells me that we shouldn’t take the god of those ancients any more seriously than we take Marvel Comics superheroes - and the same goes for the gods of those more modern myth makers.

April 16, 2012

Why do Americans still dislike atheists?

Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.
Rarely denounced by the mainstream, this stunning anti-atheist discrimination is egged on by Christian conservatives who stridently — and uncivilly — declare that the lack of godly faith is detrimental to society, rendering nonbelievers intrinsically suspect and second-class citizens.
Is this knee-jerk dislike of atheists warranted? Not even close.
A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency— issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious.
Consider that at the societal level, murder rates are far lower in secularized nations such as Japan or Sweden than they are in the much more religious United States, which also has a much greater portion of its population in prison. Even within this country, those states with the highest levels of church attendance, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, have significantly higher murder rates than far less religious states such as Vermont and Oregon.
As individuals, atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They tend to raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make up their own minds when it comes to existential questions and to obey the golden rule. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious are, and are less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought.
While many studies show that secular Americans don’t fare as well as the religious when it comes to certain indicators of mental health or subjective well-being, new scholarship is showing that the relationships among atheism, theism, and mental health and well-being are complex. After all, Denmark, which is among the least religious countries in the history of the world, consistently rates as the happiest of nations. And studies of apostates — people who were religious but later rejected their religion — report feeling happier, better and liberated in their post-religious lives.
More than 2,000 years ago, whoever wrote Psalm 14 claimed that atheists were foolish and corrupt, incapable of doing any good. These put-downs have had sticking power. Negative stereotypes of atheists are alive and well. Yet like all stereotypes, they aren’t true — and perhaps they tell us more about those who harbor them than those who are maligned by them. So when the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly and Newt Gingrich engage in the politics of division and destruction by maligning atheists, they do so in disregard of reality.
As with other national minority groups, atheism is enjoying rapid growth. Despite the bigotry, the number of American nontheists has tripled as a proportion of the general population since the 1960s. Younger generations’ tolerance for the endless disputes of religion is waning fast. Surveys designed to overcome the understandable reluctance to admit atheism have found that as many as 60 million Americans — a fifth of the population — are not believers. Our nonreligious compatriots should be accorded the same respect as other minorities.

April 1, 2012

20 Things you didn't know about Atheists

Some atheists are well known and open about their non-belief, while others are more noncommittal. Kevin Bacon’s name graces many lists of celebrity atheists. Given the Six Degrees of Separation game, we wondered what would the Six Degrees of Freethinkers look like?
Further, when we think of the concept of atheism, many of us think of it as a phenomenon that describes a sense of lacking, or the absence of something. But seldom do we stop and think about what atheists do have, or what they do bring to the table as a group of self-described non-believers.With that in mind and whether you believe or not, consider the following list of 20 things we bet you didn’t know about atheists and atheism: