Why We Believe

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For some time, I have been in discussion with a number of Christians on matters of faith. One of the questions I explore at least a couple of times a year is why Christians believe the things they believe.

Talk to them long enough, and you will always get two sets of reasons. The first set of reasons are the ones they use to try and convince you to believe. The second set of reasons are the real reasons why they believe?

The reasons in the first set are usually based on evidence or philosophy. They will bring up their favorite apologetic arguments. After that, they might talk about fulfilled prophecy, the empty tomb, and the historical fact of the resurrection.

And while these things might serve to support a flagging faith, or provide reasonable talking points for communication with unbelievers, they are seldom the reasons anyone initially comes to faith. Those reasons are usually rather more subjective.

The real reason most people believe can be traced to where they were born and raised. It is also determined by the belief system of the parents and culture surrounding the individual. But notice that these are never the reasons given when a Christian is waxing poetic about why they believe. They understand that to be credible, they need better reasons. Thus, apologetics.

The apostle Paul is my goto example. Before becoming a Christian, he was a persecutor of the church. He literally murdered Christians for a living. He seemed to be doing so on behalf of the Jewish leadership. And he had the finest Jewish education.

All of this is to say that he had access to all of the evidence for a risen Jesus. And he had training in all of the messianic prophecies. None of that convinced him to be a Christian. What actually convinced him was that he had a religious experience: a vision.

But there lies the problem. You can’t just go around trying to convert people on the strength of your religious experience. You can’t just tell others to have their own religious experience. You have to use something else to convince them. So in typical fashion, Paul used the same scriptures he rejected, to try and convert others.

This is a similar path to where I normally go with this topic. But I decided to expand the question to why atheist believe what they believe. Because I have been both a believer and nonbeliever in my adult years, I started by questioning myself. Do I believe differently as a nonbeliever than I did as a believer?

I think about how I came to beliefs before versus how I come to beliefs now. And there does seem to be a difference. I wanted to know if I just believed what I wanted to believe. Did I believe in Christian things when I wanted to be a Christian, then believe in atheist things when I wanted to be an atheist? Is it all just wish fulfillment?

I don’t believe it is. One reason is that when I gave up faith in god, I didn’t want to. I was doing everything I could do to maintain faith. When I was a Christian, I really wanted to believe in Christian things.

So examining why I stopped believing has provided me insight on the different methods and mechanisms for belief depending on whether one holds to a faith-based system, or if one is a skeptic. There is yet another major difference in how believers and skeptics come to believe things:

When anything is possible

One of the main reasons Christians believe differently is because for them, anything is possible. And when anything is possible, everything is possible. Atheists tend to have a smaller set of things that are possible. Their possibilities are usually limited to the laws of nature.

Christians have a builtin mechanism for infinite possibilities. They believe in an infinite god who can do anything at all. There are a few things he can’t do such as lie, or sin, or anything that Christians don’t really believe in. But otherwise, his capabilities are boundless.

Atheists have no such mechanism. Nature is vast, but limited. It functions based on rules that can be learned and understood. A lot is possible, including many things we cannot explain. But we would not subscribe to the notion that anything is possible, because it isn’t.

Believers take a lot of things on faith because even if they don’t know how it is managed, they have an underlying belief that it is possible, whatever it happens to be. It is very hard to believe in something that you think is impossible to begin with. Therefore, one of the prerequisites for belief is that you have some belief mechanism that renders the proposition possible, if not probable.

Probability assessment

Not only do believers tend to believe more things are possible, they believe that those possibilities are far more probable than they really are. Even if they know that causing a cancerous tumor to disappear via prayer is only marginally possible, they nonetheless convince themselves that it will happen because god is not limited by probability. In other words, they have a builtin defeater for probability.

In this way, the least likely thing can become highly likely. They use a type of faulty reasoning that informs them that the least likely thing, as long as it is mathematically possible, is just as likely as any other possibility.

The believer has the same issues with probability as the gambler. The gambler buys 10 lottery tickets instead of 1, thinking that he has increased his chances from improbable to very probable. He might also rub a lucky rabbit’s foot, and wish upon a star to increase his chances even further.

While more tickets help mathematically, out of hundreds of millions of tickets purchased, 10 tickets does not really help. If it did, millionaires would spend a million dollars a week on tickets to win a hundred million. They don’t. They tend to be better at math.

The believer does similar things. If one prayer makes it probable, 10 makes it likely. In addition to prayer, the believer can do many good deeds, and give money to charity. They will not only pray more often, but more fervently. Surely these things improve their chances. But they don’t.

The atheist has no such fallback. There is only cold, unyielding probability. If the odds aren’t very good, we see no reason to play them. We tend not to place our bets on the least likely possibility. We deem many possible things to be implausible. And there is nothing we can do to improve the plausibility of the least likely event.

Testimonial evidence

Believers tend to place a lot of weight on testimonial evidence. There is something to be said for a good, personal testimonial. But it is not exactly the same as other types of evidence. Not all types of evidence are the same. But Christians tend to treat all types of evidence as the same while atheists don’t.

Even in a court of law, testimonial evidence is rarely enough. When two disputants disagree on the facts, other evidence has to be considered. Even a confession of guilt would not be admissible if that confession was that a person committed a murder via magic. The confession might get a person time in a psych ward, but not prison.

Christians tend to believe that stories written in the Bible are the same as carefully vetted history. They also tend to believe that miracles happened to others on the bases of their testimony alone. When evaluating extraordinary claims, atheists tend to put less faith in testimonial evidence.

A lack of proof

Another major difference between Christian and atheist belief systems is that for the Christian, a lack of proof is not a problem. Believing a thing hard enough, itself, becomes a sort of proof. This works alongside testimonial evidence. If the person presenting the testimony believes it enough, their belief adds credence to the testimony.

They think that if the earliest apostles were martyred for their beliefs, then their beliefs must have been true. The martyrdom argument is made by the most notable apologists. No less than C. S. Lewis made the case that because Jesus actually believed what he said about himself, we should too. He was either liar, lunatic, or Lord. Lewis sees not other options. And Christians eat this logic up. Atheists don’t.

Conclusion: Supernatural

At the end of the day, believers always have the supernatural to fall back on, while as a general rule, unbelievers do not. Everything about Christianity that makes it interesting is heavily steeped in the supernatural. That includes the information delivery system by which we learn of it.

It comes telepathically from the mind of god, to the hand of writers, in a way that leaves the message uncorrupted. We are given aid to read and understanding it courtesy of the Holy Spirit. By that same spirit, we are granted a gift of faith in that message. The truth of the message cannot be accessed without help from the supernatural. For the Christian, it is supernatural all the way down.

Do I have some confirmation bias? Of course. But it is also held in check by many checks and balances I have in place. I read and follow Christian thinkers as well. I never stopped reading the Bible. I still probably read it more than the average Christian. I routinely engage in online conversation with theists. I test my arguments before making them, and change them if they turn out to be bad.

Since becoming a nonbeliever, I have been to church, prayed the seekers prayer, was open to religious experience, made arguments in favor of god and faith, just to see if I could, and did all the things Christians suggested I do to find god. He remains unfound. And I remain unconvinced.

Now compare what confirmation bias I might yet have to the absolute certainty of the supernatural held by believers. That is so much worse than confirmation bias fueled by skepticism. For the record, I am skeptical about everything. But the believer always carries a trump card that can overcome anything, any objection, any scientific fact, any logical necessity. The supernatural is not confirmation bias. It’s confirmation crack.

My bias can be proved wrong. But the supernatural can never be proven wrong. It is unfalsifiable, completely immune to skeptical inquiry. Because it cannot be proven wrong, the supernatural explanation is always as good as any other explanation.

Unfortunately, the supernatural is a place where inquiry goes to die. Your supernatural explanation can be trumped by someone else’s unfalsifiable, supernatural explanation. Rational inquiry is barred from entering the arena.

Because the Christian believes in the supernatural, there is no objection that can stand. Because there is no way to test the supernatural with natural means, every theory that includes the supernatural is confirmed by the supernatural. As you can see, confirmation bias is a minor issue compared to that.

Expect another post in the near future exploring why we skeptics think the way we do.

David Johnson

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Faith: “Help My Unbelief”

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Despite the title of this post, I am not actually petitioning aid for my unbelief. I’m well beyond that point. But make no mistake about it: I have vigorously prayed this prayer many times during my first forty years of life as a believer. Alas, that prayer was never answered. My unbelief was not abated by divine intervention. The Line, “Help my unbelief” is from a story in Mark 9. A man is desperate for Jesus to help his dying son. He seemed like a person who would have tried anything, and probably did. He would have tried anything, believed anything. He was desperate and afraid. We’ve all been there.

The line has always captivated me from the moment I first read it as a child. The insertion of this very human moment contradicted everything I thought I understood about faith. It left me hopeful, but hopelessly confused. It seemed to stand in stark contradiction with other passages that required absolute faith. Jesus could do no miracles in his home town because of the lack of faith shown by the people there.

His own disciples could not cast out a particular demon because of their doubts. And they certainly had more faith than anyone else, as they had seen and performed other miracles first-hand. If even a little doubt could render them impotent, what hope did anyone else have?

Yet, here is a man admitting doubt, and yet, got the miracle he was so desperate to receive. How is that even possible. More to the point, if it was possible for him, why shouldn’t it be possible for me. That was my question then, and is my question for believers today.

The Faith of Thomas

One of the 12 that walked with Jesus, Thomas is my hero. Grant it, I don’t believe Thomas was a real person. But in terms of the story as told, he may be my favorite character in all the bible. Why he was singled out as a doubter, I will never know. The storyteller needed a doubter, and Thomas was it. He was declared the doubter because he requested proof that the risen Jesus was who he said he was. Here’s the thing: The other eleven had been given the proof demanded by Thomas in an earlier meeting. Here’s the passage:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together and locked the doors of the place because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jn. 20:19-20

You will notice that the disciples rejoiced only after they had been convinced by the wounds. Thomas wasn’t with them at the time. When they told him about it, he also insisted on seeing the evidence before being convinced. The story highlights Thomas as a doubter because he held out for the evidence. I’m fine with that. He held out for the evidence. He saw the evidence. And he believed as a result of the evidence.

Even more interesting, Jesus actually gave him the evidence rather than the more typical mercurial answer for which he was known. Not only that, he accepted Thomas’s faith rather than rejecting him as a disciple because of his demand for proof. Of course, Jesus upbraided him for his lack of faith, and made a speech declaring those who believed without evidence were somehow better.

But none of that really matters because the faith of Thomas was apparently sufficient for him to continue as one of Jesus’ 12 representatives. If it was good enough for Thomas, I’ll take it. Except, it seems that option is no longer available. It is either faith without evidence, or nothing.

The Impossible Faith

As I have said many times in other posts about the matter, we do not choose what we believe. We can choose what we want to believe. But when it comes to what we actually believe, we either believe it or we don’t. We can’t skip the builtin mechanisms we have for distinguishing truth from falsehood, muscling past our mental gatekeeper. We can’t short-circuit the pathways to proper belief. Just try as hard as you can to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You simply can’t do it. That is what I call an impossible faith.

What god seems to demand today is an impossible faith. My not believing things that are hard to believe does not make me a bad person. It makes me a properly functioning human. At worst, it makes me Thomas. God does nothing to try and persuade us. He simply demands that we believe. It is a little like demanding that you love someone you never met, and aren’t too sure if that person even exists. Love this person, or die! Believe these propositions sans clarification and proof, or die! It is the mad man who demands that you love him while he holds a gun to your head. I can try to fake it. But I can’t accomplish it. He might as well pull the trigger.

The Price of Grace

I recently wrote a piece called Grace: A Not So Free, Not So Gift. Part of my thesis was that grace is not free because it requires us to do something to reap its benefits. In most formulations, that something is usually faith. It is saved by grace through faith. No faith, no grace. Semantic games cannot change the fact that faith is a payment. The Hebrews writer put it this way:

Now without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. He. 11:6

There is simply no getting around it. Without faith (to paraphrase the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld), no grace for you! This particular passage highlights two propositions you have to believe. The first is that god exists. It is interesting that the writer of this passage does not automatically assume that everybody knows that god exists, or that there is sufficient evidence for his existence. He lists it as a proposition that one must take on faith. The second is that god rewards those who seek him. I know many Christians who do not believe in heaven, and hold no classical view of eternal reward.

I find the second proposition even more interesting because it seems to be unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Belief in god seems essential enough. But reward? What does it matter if a believer understands the idea of godly rewards? Why not demand belief in the risen Jesus, or blood atonement? Why something as inessential as the belief in reward? This will always be a mystery to me. What I am certain of is that the bible makes faith a prerequisite for receiving the not so free gift of grace.

Conclusion: Help My Disbelief

Christians unquestioningly accept faith as the price of grace. I do not. Why must we believe anything? If you have never asked yourself this, ask now. We don’t actually need faith for any of the laws of physics to work. Gravity, quantum mechanics, and relativity operate as predicted whether or not I understand or believe in them. I don’t have to believe in the benefits of oxygen to draw a breath. Nor do I have to believe that a snake is venomous before it can kill me.

This is true even in interpersonal relationships. If I make the unlikely promise that I will give you a pony, it is not incumbent upon you to believe it. In fact, if you know anything about me, it would show good judgement on your part to completely disbelieve it. The responsibility to deliver your pony is mine, and mine alone. You can disbelieve it all the way up to the point that the pony is in your yard, with all the appropriate papers declaring me the giver and you the owner. My fulfilling my promise does not require your faith.

I have been close enough to death so that I was certain I would die in the hospital, and not live to see another sunrise. I remember closing my eyes having zero faith that I would open them again. Fortunately, my faith was not required, as years later, I’m still here. Many mornings, I wake up a little surprised to have successfully done so.

Faith is meaningless in every practical aspect of our lives. We don’t need faith for a thing to be true, or to receive a gift, or to accomplish the unlikely. One might argue that wishful and positive thinking offers some benefit. But faith is presented as something distinct from hope and positive thinking. While hope may give you some measure of confidence where none is called for, faith will not give you better grades. It will not grow back your thinning hair. It will not keep you from being hit by a drunk driver. It will not add one good day to a bad marriage. It will not keep the repo man from driving off with your car. Faith profits nothing!

But… What if I’m wrong? What if I disbelieve as a result of being born to the wrong family, or in the wrong part of the world? What if I was provided misleading information during my formative years? What if I have a defective gene? What if I am mentally and emotionally incapable of the understanding required for faith? What if any number of things I haven’t even mentioned is keeping me from believing? I am still required to believe in what I clearly cannot.

I have been a seeker, not a finder. I have searched the scriptures multiple times. I have prayed with the fervor of a thousand priest, “I believe! Lord help my disbelief!” Until that prayer is answered, I don’t see the point in any other prayers. What I am left with is what I actually believe and don’t believe. I cannot muscle past the gatekeeper of my better judgement. I will happily take the reward of Thomas based on his evidence-powered faith. I await god’s presentation of the evidence that would persuade me.

David Johnson

A difference of opinion

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Some have taken to styling the difference between the religious and non-religious worldview as a mere, difference of opinion. It is as if we believe it is on the order of rooting for Alabama (roll tide) or Auburn (War Eagle). To avoid the debate altogether, we engage in the conversational cowardice  of agreeing to disagree. But I contend that it is so much more than that. We are not talking about a matter of opinion or angle of perspective. We are talking about the basis of law, social mores, and human rights. It is not just a difference of opinion, but a fundamental understanding of how the universe works. And that is worth risking a few verbal bruises in the arena of meaningful debate.

Equal footing

To say that a faith-based worldview versus a science-based worldview is merely a difference of opinion, is to place them both at the same level. It pretends that both world views are on equal footing with one another. They are both mere matters of opinion. The suggestion is that it is wrong to assign one opinion more weight than the other. After all, it is only an opinion, and everybody has one. Yours is no better than mine. At least, that is how the reasoning goes.

This strategy only favors the one with the weaker argument. It allows them to lose the battle, but win the ceasefire. Religion can lose every argument. But if the battle ends with the other side treating religion as an equal, that is a major victory for religion. Such a ceasefire should never be allowed. Faith is not equal to physics. Religion and spirituality are not just other ways of reaching the same, universal truths.

Substance and evidence

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. He. 11:1

The bible attempts to place faith on equal footing with science by referring to faith as substance and evidence. This is an attempt to enlist the words of science to bolster the claims of faith. In the above passage, hope is placed on a level playing field with substance, and unseen things are elevated to evidence.

Reality, however, makes quick work of this juvenile sophistry. Fill one hand with the hope of a million dollars, and the other with a dollar, and it becomes readily apparent which handful buys you a cup of coffee. In court, defend yourself with unseen things while the prosecution convicts you with evidence. How many phone calls will you be allowed to make after the trial is over? Exactly!

Something you believe vs. something you know

To further make this obvious point, let’s do a thought experiment. Think about the closest house to yours that you have never been inside. Now, let’s place a bet on how many bedrooms you think it has, $1 being the smallest bet, $100 being the largest. Once done, think about the number of bedrooms in your own house. Place a bet on that number. Did you make the same sized bet on both propositions? Of course not. Where you were unsure, you place a small bet. Where you were certain, you bet everything.

Even if you looked at the construction, compared it to houses with which you were familiar, and was fairly convinced there were two bedrooms, you couldn’t be sure. In your own house, there was no room for doubt. It was not a mere difference of opinion. One was what you believed; the other was what you knew. There is no equality between what you believe and what you know.

Removing the labels to reveal the truth

Labeling is one of the most effective tools of debate. An the US, the debate over abortion does not come down to science or morality. It comes down to reductionist labeling. Pro-life is defeated by pro-choice. For Americans, life is good, but choice is better. Reduce your argument to a winning label, and more often than not, you win. The reverse is also true. Reduce the other side to a losing label, and they lose. Ronald Reagan did not lead the battle against another nation with different ideas about governance. He fought a holy war against the evil empire.

To be honest, non-believers like myself use the word, “religion” as a pejorative. In all fairness, religious people use “atheist”, and even “science” in the same way. A religious person might say, “Your science leaves you cold and without answers in matters of the spirit.” A non-believer might say, “If we used religion to launch rockets, we would have never left the atmosphere.”

But what happens if we remove the labels? If we are forced to talk about science without using the word, we would be left with other words like observation, measurement, experimentation, repetition, and falsification. Take away religion as a word, and what we have left are other words like faith, hope, believe, wish, invisible, spirit, and miracle. One ounce of repeatedly observed measurements outweighs a ton of invisible spirit miracles. Not the same!

Conclusion

Declaring a thing a difference of opinion assumes that neither side has the facts. Arguing over the number of bedrooms in my neighbor’s house is a difference of opinion because neither of us knows for sure. My opinion is probably better than yours because, at least, I’ve seen the outside of his house. You, most likely, have not. However, disagreeing over the number of bedrooms in my own house is not a difference of opinion. It is your opinion against my fact. It is your magic mind weapon vs. my nuclear bomb. You can try to say that it is just a difference in weaponry. But once both are deployed, you probably wouldn’t finish the sentence.

Agreeing to disagree is weak sause. Unprovable opinion is never equal to repeatedly observed fact. Religion and science are not on an equal playing field. Religious education is oxymoronic: a subject I will write about at another time. I will not sit idly by and have my laws, social mores, and human rights be determined by people who believe that the bible is on a par with Isaac Newton’s Principia. Nor should you!

David Johnson

One Prayer

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This post is inspired by an overheard conversation, and a conversation had with a friend, who, like me, considers good conversation a blood-sport. Thanks, Kip.

I don’t quite recall the conversation I overheard. Somewhere in it, one person may have said something to the effect that they would keep the other in their prayers. That triggered my musings of the hundreds of thousands of times I have heard sentiments like that over the course of my lifetime. For the first time, It occurred to me to ask why anyone would need someone else to pray for them. That question led to another.:Why would anyone need to pray the same request more than once?

I thought about the countless prayer lists in church bulletins. You can find them in every church, and on many church web pages. It is easy to see that many people are regular fixtures on those lists. I have personally, been on a couple of such lists for periods lasting more than a year. I cannot track the number of prayers that focus, solely, on prayer requests. Those prayers often feature the same people making the same requests.

In almost all cases, both the pray-re and the pray-ee are believers, often, within the same faith system. All are considered children of God. All have God’s ear and undivided attention at all times. By most faith systems, none is more worthy than the other. Why, then, would it ever be necessary for one believer to ask another believer to pray on their behalf?

Compounding the issue is the fact that we do not just seek the unnecessary prayer of one, but of many, as many as we can get to pray for us. It seems, the more, the merrier. Why should our chances of answered prayer be dependent, in any way, by the number of people praying the same prayer?

Of course, the question at the root of this line of inquiry is, why would any prayer ever need to be repeated. Why is it that one person praying for one thing, one time, on her own behalf is not enough? After an hour of debate, My friend and I came up with the only answer that made sense to us both. We pray for the same thing more than once because we do not believe that the first time was sufficient.

If we ask a person to help us to move, and he agrees, we do not go right back and ask him again. We would only revisit that situation if we think he has forgotten, or has backed out. We might ask again if we did not get an answer the first time. He might have to think about it. That may warrant one more attempt at resolution.

None of these situations should apply to God. He either said yes, or no. Asking a second time shouldn’t change his answer as, he is not human that he should change his mind. That is a description from the bible. Look it up. He didn’t forget about your request. He needs no reminders. If he needs more time to think about it, a ridiculous notion, he will get back to you when he has an answer. Again, there is no need to ever repeat the request.

All of this equally applies to requests from multiple people at high frequency. One righteous person praying is enough to file the request, and get priority treatment. Convincing 10, 100, or 1,000,000 righteous people to pray for you does not move the request through the system any faster, nor does it help in gaining the attention of the holy benefactor. 1,000 people making a request 1,000 times a day should be no more efficacious than one, small voice raised one, brief time. Is God a politician who only responds when enough of his constituents complain loud enough? Surely not!

The bible is not very helpful on this matter. It seems to be equally divided between confidence and persistence, as if the two were not mutually exclusive. One who prays with confidence is certain that his prayer will be answered. One who prays persistently is not confident in any one prayer, but hopes to wear God down through dogged determination. You can do one or the other, but not both. The two strategies stand in opposition of each other.

Finally, the strategy of persistence seems to eliminate the possibility that the answer is, no. To be ever persistent is to never take, no, for an answer. It is said that God answers every prayer, but that the answer is often, no. If that is the case, then it does not square with the strategy of praying persistently.

It works like this: You ask for something. God says, no. You ask again. Again, he says, no. A third time, you ask. A third time, the answer is, no. Frustrated, anxious, and a bit desperate, you gather a few of your closest friends, and enlist them in the prayer campaign. Armed with a small army, you send a salvo of requests fired off, as if from a Gatling gun. The answer comes back, no. But it is just the tiniest bit weaker.

Confidence buoyed, we increase the ranks of our prayer warriors, and storm the throne-room of Heaven with our tired, much denied request. At this point, the answer doesn’t even matter. We’ve got our army firing on all cylinders in a 24/7, prayer vigil. We’re gonna get grandma out of that sickbed even if we have to stage a Heavenly coup d’état. God is going to answer our prayer regardless of his will, because we are not taking, no, for an answer. That’s right. We’re persistent… and confident… How does that work again? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

There are other problems with the persistence strategy. What is the statute of limitations on prayer? If I request that my three-day flu be heeled, and it finally goes away… after three days, can I claim that as an answered prayer? If I pray, daily, for a drought to end, and it does so after three months, is that an answered prayer?

It gets more ludicrous when the reverse is considered. How long and often should I pray for a promotion before accepting the answer that I am to be content where I am? How many bank loan applications do I need to pray over before accepting that God does not want me to take out a loan? How long should church leaders publicly pray for world peace before accepting conflict as a necessary condition of humanity? When are we supposed to give up, and take, no, for an answer, and when are we supposed to persist?

Before I stopped praying altogether, it was one prayer, or no prayer. I could no longer logically justify the reflexive repetition of a request to a God who already knew what I needed long before I asked. If someone I loved asked me for something that was mine to give, they only ever needed to ask once. If Heaven’s responsiveness could not match my own, then there was no more need to send requisitions to that address.

David Johnson

Another Bad Week for Prayer

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Two things happened this week that gave prayer yet another black eye. One of them is personal, but of little consequence. The other, though not personal, is far more impactful. I had eye surgery last week which seems to have gone well enough, all but the seeing part. It has been nine days as of the time of this writing. There should have been immediate results. Unfortunately, my vision is blurry and distorted. Those are two words that would not have been used to describe my vision before the surgery. I include it in this piece, only because the surgery was thoroughly covered by prayer from some of the most devout and concerned people in my life. The other event involved the death of an infant.

After some consideration, I decided not to link to the story because it is such a common tale of woe, it can hardly be considered news. It is the story of another child dying an unnecessary death thanks to the religious choice of Christian parents to provide prayer as medical care instead of medical care. Making this ever worse is the fact that this is the second child in this family lost to prayer.

After the first death, the parents were placed on a ten-year probation by the judge. Taking the approach that they ought to obey god rather than men, they returned, not that they ever left, to their prayer-as-treatment ways. The story and outcome are the predictable, and logical conclusion of what happens when faith and science are conflated, or otherwise, confused. Bad things happen, and people die, usually, the innocent ones.

I know that the initial reactions from the mainstream, Christian community will condemn the actions of the parents, or lack thereof. They would say that, of course, the parents should have provided medical care for their children. They might say things like, “God invented medicine”, or, “God is the one who led us to advanced, medical discoveries.” But this random fit of pragmatism from the Christian community rings a hollow note of dissonance in the symphony of faith teachings. In fact, on the basis of biblical and traditional teaching on the matter, in a contest of groups that most closely in-flesh the doctrine which they profess to believe, I would have to side with the parents.

The pragmatic arguments proffered by mainstream christendom do not stand up to close scrutiny. God invented medicine? Really? If so, his invention has been sorely lacking throughout most of human history. If we were still working with what God gave us, people would still consider thirty a ripe, old age. Adults would still be dying in the millions, from diseases that are now, easily inoculated against in childhood.

God’s invention of medicine did not account for leprosy, the plethora of cancers, nor AIDS. Were it not for mankind’s contribution to medicine, humanity would very likely be extinct. But, of course, the argument retreats to safer ground when the believer reveals that God invented medicine through a process that is indistinguishable from the efforts of humans. In other words, he directed us to the relevant discoveries. Unfortunately for the believer, that argument also does not survive logical examination.

If God is the one controlling the pace of medical discovery, then he has a lot of history for which to answer. There is no guarantee that, even now, we have reached our observational potential. God may be hindering the pace of our discovery efforts in the same way he has hindered previous generations. What else explains why it took so long for us to discover germs? Why would god, even for a moment, allow us to ascribe to evil spirits, what was nothing more than a chemical imbalance? If our medical knowledge comes from God, why is it so inexact, and why did it not come much sooner?

As an aside, If God is the one directing our scientific discoveries, why has the church, historically, been so in opposition to every major, scientific discovery? Does God just dabble in medicine, or is he also the one behind all that evidence for evolution? The church wasn’t so keen on God’s helping hand in the discovery that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around. The church was not so eager to embrace the discovery that the earth and universe were billions of years in the making, rather than days. If God is guiding our discovery of medicine, and doctors are his prophets in that arena of endeavor, then why do we not consider physicists his prophets in the field of scientific inquiry?

God has never had much use for physicians or pharmaceuticals. When a person in the community was sick, they either died, or were miraculously healed. There is no mandate for the man of God calling for the doctor during a time of medical distress. If a person died from their injuries, it was God’s will for them to die. Though Paul implored his friend to take a little wine for his stomach, James directly commanded the faithful to call on the elders of the church for an anointing ritual as a substitute for medical care, and led them to believe that such ministrations would be efficacious. Prayer, not penicillin, has always been the bible-endorsed prescription for physical ailments.

That is why I am confused by the reactions of mainstream Christians. When a man of faith obeys the literal and direct command of God to call the church elders instead of a doctor, why is he pilloried rather than praised? Had his victims… err… children taken a turn for the better instead of the worse, he would be hailed as a paragon of faith, and an example to be followed. At the very least, no one would be calling for his other children to be placed in protective custody, and for him and his wife to be thrown in jail. But why? Why does the outcome change the nature of the behavior?

Why is nut-job religion tolerated up to the point that someone dies? Indeed, this wasn’t even the first of his children that died because of this lunacy. Yet the courts allowed him and his wife to continue raising children. I believe they had seven in all. Anyone who is known to substitute prayer for medical treatment should have the kids taken away, and they should be tried for neglect. He and his wife have been doing this the whole time. Their other children lived. God only chose to take two of them. Our policies allow crazy people to do crazy things until someone dies. Only then, do we step in to save the remaining children, and not always, even then.

We are all culpable for the death of these children. We knew these churches were teaching this poison in the name of all things holy. We can read the sermons online, that instruct parishioners to seek treatments based on faith, not science. We know where they are. We know what they’re saying. We know the outcome of the teaching. If we had so much information about a mosque where the believers were plainly directed to, and instructed in the ways of assassinating the president, that place would be shut down with extreme prejudice. Make the victims innocent children instead of world leaders, and we call it freedom of religion. Damn them! And Damn the moral cowardice of America that allows us to watch, doe-eyed, while it goes on under our apathetic gaze. God-damned us all!

David Johnson

Room for Doubt

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One of the favorite, safe havens for people of faith when losing a debate with an atheist, is that since the existence of god cannot be conclusively disproven, then there is, at least, a possibility that he exists. That possibility means that atheistic certainty is unfounded. The atheist should have a little bit of doubt. That extremely small room for doubt is where the agnostic lives.

From either side of faith, I have had no patience with agnosticism. An agnostic is an atheist who is too afraid to admit it. Agnosticism is the belief that nothing is known, and possibly, can ever be known about the existence of a deity:

agnostic |agˈnästik| noun
a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

They stop just short of saying that there is no god. Rather, they say that there is simply no way to know. What the agnostic abhors is certainty. They are neither friend to the believer nor the atheist. They wear their uncertainty like a badge, as if uncertainty, itself, was a virtue.

Ignorance is not a virtue! It is a treatable condition to be overcome whenever possible. Ironically, the agnostic is certain that there can be no certainty. His certainty is just as strong as the believer and the atheist. Whatever the agnostic may believe, intellectually, is completely irrelevant. What matters is how the agnostic lives. In fact, that is what matters for all of us. The agnostic does not believe there is any proof for god, so he does not live as if there was a god. He lives exactly like the atheist: god-free. The only difference is meaningless rhetoric about certainty.

But this is not about the agnostic; it is about the atheist. Do believers have a point? Should atheists leave just a little room for doubt? Isn’t it the height of arrogance to suggest that a thing could not be possible? Isn’t it more than dismissive to suggest that the billions of people throughout time, have been completely wrong about the existence of god? Shouldn’t the atheist at least consider the possibility that it is he who is wrong? I think these questions are worth addressing, and I will endeavor to do just that.

Though the question is worth addressing, that is not to say that it is a fair question. In fact, I find it rather hypocritical. The purpose of the question is to quiet the atheist by forcing him to admit doubt. The believer asking the question, however, is subject to the same doubt, but would never be disarmed because of it. Also, though believers do not claim to be able to prove the existence of god, they will never acknowledge there being any room for reasonable doubt in the proposition. It does not seem to be a legitimate inquiry.

There is also a subtext in the question. The subtext is that it is not possible to be truly certain about anything. Since empirical evidence does not prove either side, belief in god is just as valid as disbelief. There are many problems with this subtext. I will deal with a couple:

First, this framework makes it just as valid to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Santa Clause, or Zeus. There is no limit to what one can reasonably believe, because no, wackadoodle fantasy can be disproven when sprinkled with enough magic and mystery. Second, my doubt would not make your assertion any more reasonable. If you could poke holes in my certainty, the best you could do is win the argument. With regard to proving your claims about god, all your work would still be in front of you.

Besides being disingenuous, the question is based on a false premise. The atheist does not say that there is no god. The atheist gives no intellectual ascent to any god yet proposed. That is a very different thing. Atheism is a negative assertion. It is a statement of disbelief. Humanism, on the other hand, is a positive assertion of beliefs. Though I do not believe in the gods I have been presented with, and for that matter, any god-centric framework, I refuse to be defined by what I do not believe. My brand of rational humanism has nothing to do with what is not there.

I do not have to offer any evidence, or even be convinced that there is no god, because in my worldview, god doesn’t even enter into the picture. Reason is not damaged by disbelieving in things that have yet to be entered into the book of evidentiary record. I also do not believe in gremlins, nor do I need to prove the non-existence of these, fictitious creatures. The fact that no rational basis for believing in gremlins has yet to be produced, is sufficient for satisfying reason with regard to my disbelief on the matter. In other words, my disbelief based on the lack of evidence, is reasonable. Belief in unprovable things is what has to be justified.

Now that we have addressed the subtexts and false assumptions hidden in the question, Let us move on the the substance. Are the chances of there being a god greater than zero. The answer is still a solid, NO, not with my current understanding of the universe and how it works.

Those who believe in god, believe in a universe where anything, and everything is possible. They believe that physical laws place no restrictions on physical reality. The speed of light, gravity, and space-time are never once consulted when declaring that Jesus floated into the air and ascended into Heaven. Such an event could only happen in a universe unregulated by inviolable laws.

I do not live in that universe. I live in a place where only certain things can happen based on the laws of physics that regulate reality. I do not believe that we have a complete understanding of the physical laws, or even that what we know is 100% accurate. But I do believe that science has made the case that there are laws, and that reality does not occur on an ad hoc basis.

If gravity effects me one moment, it will effect me the next. There is no framework in my universe for gravity to suddenly abandon its post. With an ad hoc reality, you can wish hard enough, pray fervently enough, or believe strongly enough to cancel out, or temporarily dismiss the effects of gravity. In that framework, the only thing that binds gravity is god’s will. Only if he wills it from moment to moment, will gravity operate as predicted. When he decides otherwise, gravity will take a coffee break, and you will simply float away.

Only in a universe where anything and everything is possible, can god exist. In a universe restricted by the laws of physics, he cannot. Therefore, it is fair to say that doubt is unwarranted. Doubting godlessness is tantamount to doubting physics. It is like doubting that, instead of stepping onto a solid floor when getting out of bed, I would fall through the floor and into an alternate dimension. I do not believe that is something we could experience, and I have no reason to doubt that. The same is true for god’s nonexistence.

Might god exist? Sure, in the same universe populated by unicorns and cherubs, fairies and demons. In such a universe, I freely acknowledge that anything and everything is possible. But even in such a universe, the believer would still have to make his case.

Conclusion

People sometimes ask me with much astonishment, how can I live without believing in something. By, something, they mean, unprovable things. How could I live without hope in the possibilities, a desire for something better? There seems to be no good answer to this question. The one asking the question lives in a completely different universe than the one I do. In their universe, thoughts are as easily transmitted through the vastness of space-time, as are sound-waves from one person to another in the same room.

Reality in my universe is not ordered by what I believe, hope, desire, or request. There are no ad hoc exceptions to inviolable rules. I do not have the luxury of believing, hoping, desiring, or requesting that the natural order be set aside at any time, for any reason. I am simply not that important, and cannot abide in the same universe as someone who is.

No. Categorically, I can say without any doubt, there is no god. But the admission of doubt would not hurt or change my position in any way. If I said that I doubt there is a god, to the believer, I would still be an atheist, and just as lost in my sins. I would still not live the life of a believer. I still would not be convinced of things for which there is no evidence. Doubt would only bring my understanding of the universe into question, not increase the likelihood of god’s existence.

Doubt, on the other hand, would devastate the believer. Faith is believing in things for which there is no evidence. Doubt means that more evidence is needed. As doubt increases, faith decreases. The believer’s position becomes untenable once doubt is introduced. It is not the doubt of atheists with which believers need be concerned. It is their own.

David Johnson

Three Things Religion Offers that Atheism cannot Address

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I used to be one of them. I recognize Mr. Comfort’s arguments as the types of things I used to say in defense of my beliefs. I am not a stupid person, yet I accepted stupid, indefensible arguments to bolster my position. I and a friend, also a former Christian, have been struggling with the question of how we allowed ourselves to be so completely taken in by fundamentalist religion. I believe I have some insights that may help shed some light on the matter.

The first thing to understand is that religious faith is not a matter of rational belief in reasonable principles. If it was so, then all that is needed to de-convert the Christian is a reasonable, counter-argument. Once exposed to reason, the religious person would instantly abandon his faith, grateful for the enlightenment. But that is almost never what happens, because a rational belief in reasonable principles is not the cornerstone of faith.

I believe there are three things that sit at the heart of all religious belief, indeed at the heart of all metaphysical acceptance: First, there is the need to believe that life is fundamentally fair. Bad things happen to good people for a reason. We are constantly trying to find meaning in suffering and death. If we find sufficient meaning, then the suffering was not arbitrary or capricious. If things seem unfair right now, it is only because we must lack perspective. Therefore, in this life or the next, and for things to balance out, there must be a next, life ultimately is fair. Otherwise, we are without hope or help.

Second, our lives have meaning. Why are we here and what is our purpose? These are the timeless, existential questions. These questions are based on the assumption that we are here for a reason. In an ordered universe, (another assumption) everything has a purpose. Whether the result of an existential crisis or extreme narcissism, some people are compelled to believe that they matter in the grand scheme of things. For them, there is a grand scheme, and they play a vital role in it. The creative force of the universe singles them out for his love and attention. He has a special job for them. One of the greatest attractions to religion is the idea that you are singled out, and called for something special. You, among all people, really matter.

Finally, death is not the end. It only follows that if life is fair, and our lives have meaning, then three score and ten cannot contain the sum of our existence. Unlike plants and animals that are here for a moment and gone the next, we can’t die. We have a purpose. The universe loves us. It bends events around our sense of fairness and propriety. We are the pinnacle of its achievement. It gives its life for us that we might live. The very stars were invented just so we might have something nice to look at on a sleepless night. We are not just god’s gift to the universe, the universe is god’s gift to us. The idea that it could all be over after a few, brutish years of toil on this plain is laughably absurd.

And there you have it. Life is fair, at least, for us. We matter to the universe, and cannot possibly die like rats. Religion appeals to the narcissist in all of us. All metaphysical beliefs do to some degree. But religion covers all the bases like no other. When people defend religion, they are not assenting to rational beliefs of reasonable assertions. They are defending their self-image that places them at the center of the universe. Atheism is an active assault on those core beliefs. By declaring atheism, you are asserting that life is not fair, you are not special and do not matter, and your beloved dead are not dancing with King David just beyond the pearly gates. In time, you will be as dead as the grass you are standing on. That is more than a declaration of reasonable principles; that means war!

As long as a person clings to the childish belief that they are at the center of the universe, they will cling to metaphysical beliefs that place them there, regardless of how disconnected from physical reality they are. Reason is the wrong tool for changing the mind of a person who, for whatever reason, needs to be disconnected from physical reality. Determining the right tool has become a part of my life’s work. To that end, I continue to listen to, and thoroughly enjoy the show.

David Johnson

Hope: The Essence of Emotional Immaturity

hope

“Now remains faith, hope, and love.” So says the writer of 1 Corinthians 13. While much ink has been sacrificed to the cause of faith and love, not enough has been allocated to hope. While I believe that faith is the retreat of the undisciplined mind, and love, the fundamental ingredient for all productive, human association, hope is the essence of emotional immaturity.

Hope is the optimistic anticipation of a more favorable outcome than that which a rational assessment of the situation predicts. It is replacing the rain clouds we see overhead with the blue skies we conjure in our minds. It is choosing the emotional attachment of desire over the rational assessment of what reality presents. No matter how we dress it up for intellectual exercise, hope is little more than wishing, intently, for that which reason suggests is highly unlikely. When hope is one of only three things that remain, there had better be more substance in the other two.

For many, hope is the fundamental building block of reality. They believe that if they hope fervently enough, they influence reality to bend in their favor. They go far beyond merely wanting a thing, and escalate to believing it to be true based on nothing more than hope. Set up for failure in this way, the only thing left is to be crushed by the cruel reality that the universe does not care about your hope. The only other possibility is that the holder of unrequited hope doubles down on hope, believing that the hoped for reward has simply been deferred to a later time. When faith and hope combine, no amount of reality can intrude on the fantasy that hope will, one day, be fulfilled.

Fantasy is a compelling retreat from reality. I engage in it myself from time to time. When reality becomes too oppressive, I sometimes imagine a different one where things turn out better. If the fantasy is particularly good, I might even try and come up with ways to make that imagined outcome a reality. However, I never confuse the two. The ability to separate fantasy from reality is a critical part of the maturation process.

Small children do not have the facility for distinguishing fantasy and reality. They are easily deceived by fanciful tales. They are constantly inundated with the message that good things will happen if they only believe hard enough. Hope is the active ingredient of faith.

More to the point, children desperately want to believe, especially when things are not going well. Magical thinking is the only tool with which we equip our children for dealing with difficult truths. Children have almost no control of their world. For them, faith, hope, and love are the only things they can control.

As we mature, we gain more control over our world. Faith and hope must give way to reason and reality. Those who do not manage that transition, write checks they hope will clear, without rational assessment of their funds. They hope the cigarettes do not adversely effect them without regard to the empirical evidence. They hope the next, unadvised relationship works out better than the last, or that the unprotected sex does not end up in disease, or an unwanted pregnancy, and that god will put it all to rights in the end.

Like drunkards, we stagger from hope to hope. One false hope barely has time to be crushed before we more on to the next. We are addicted to hope in the same way that a gambler is addicted to another spin at the wheel. We just can’t imagine living life without it.

But is it really so bad to live a life without hope? I think not. It is true that a person with cancer is most likely going to die from that cancer unless she dies of something else first. But is that reality really so bad? Why would you think so? Is it not a given that we are all going to die? If the goal is to avoid the ultimate endgame of life, then the situation is hopeless. Whether or not we beat the current bout of cancer, we’re still going to die. Denial of that fact is a sign of emotional immaturity.

We are sometimes tempted to ask why a particular thing happened to us, as if we believed that we were supposed to be immune from such things. It is as if we believe that all of the bad things in life are meant for other people. That somehow, if we exude enough hope for a better outcome, we will have protection against the things that happen to the people with less hope. That is childish, narcissistic, and delusional.

Many people use hope as a treatment for depression. We believe it is better to have people lie to themselves about unpleasant realities than to face them. A person with late-stage, inoperable cancer, and hope, will most likely die in a hospital surrounded by machines in and expensive, and futile attempt to postpone the inevitable. The same person without hope, but armed with knowledge and emotional maturity, will also die, but in a hospice situation, without pain or fear, and surrounded by loved ones. Trading hope for reality has its perquisites.

Finally, it is my observation that hope and help are too often confused. I am without hope, but not without help. My life economy is not based on a requisite amount of luck. Serendipity is a welcomed event, not a plan. I do not waste a lot of time hoping that things happen. If I want something to happen, I do everything in my power to make it happen. I am hopeless, not helpless.

Only the emotionally immature spend much time fretting over, and hoping for things that are beyond their control. The Christian treats hope like a magic substance. If you hope hard enough, it will come true. Placing hope in matters of faith is not substantively different than wishing on a star.

The non-believer does not have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines. We cannot afford to hope for the best. We must work for the best. If you hope that your child get’s over her cold, you give her medicine; you don’t indulge in childish hope. False hope simply deprives a person from making real plans. A person with the false hope of a quick recovery may put off making proper arrangements for his passing, leaving his family in a difficult position.

I have been to the brink. I can say with absolute conviction that for the emotionally mature, there is no reason to call a priest to issue last rights, to renew your hope. Where there is no fear, there is no need for hope. Religion creates, or at least, exacerbates the fear that requires the hope in the first place. Ridding yourself of the one, eliminates your need for the other.

Now abides faith, hope, and love. I say that with enough of the latter, there is no need for the former two.

David Johnson

Sins of the Father Chapter 11

Chapter Eleven

 

Prince of Darkness

 

 

 

Angel of Light

 

“If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God.” (2Cor 4:3-4 NLT-SE)

 

Who is this prince of darkness, angel of light (talk about contradictions) or my personal favorite, god of this world?  That last one must have given translators fits.  In fact, it did.  You can tell by just flipping through several translations to see how they treated this passage.  Most, if not all, try to downplay the god part by using a small letter g instead of a capital.  Some downplay it by changing world to age so that it reads god of this age.  That is a very significant difference.  God of this world implies supremacy.  God of this age implies limitations.

The above quote takes it head on and names Satan as the god of this world.  It also suggests that those who are perishing are doing so because the gospel has been hidden from them, and that Satan, the god of this world is the one doing the blinding.  Take a moment to digest the full implications of this passage.  There are those who are going to be lost.  There will be no salvation for them.  They are without hope.  They are in this condition because Satan, the god of this world has hidden the truth from them.  If Satan has that kind of power, then he is truly a foe to be reckoned with.

Some translations deal with this problem by downplaying the devil’s role in causing people to perish.  They render the passage so that those who are perishing do so by their own choosing.  They are simply drawn to Satan because of their having been already blinded rather than Satan being the one who blinds them with his godlike power.

The problem is there is simply no way to exonerate god and keep him all powerful at the same time.  Something has to give.  The consensus has spoken.  Some of gods power has to go.  He is very powerful.  Yet he is limited by his very goodness.  There are some things that he cannot do, such as lie or do anything wrong.

If god is incapable of doing all of the wrong things in this world, then someone else must be to blame.  There has to be a foe with godlike powers who’s mission is to contend with god.  The evil one is the god of this world, but his plans are subverted by the god of good.  God manages to take the evil that Satan planned and turn it for good.  It is a cosmic tug of war, punch and counterpunch, thrust and parry.  God is stronger and will ultimately win.  But make no mistake about it, between the two cosmic superpowers, it’s game on.

 

“Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.

“The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’

“‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed. “‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked.

“‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’”” (Matt 13:24-30 NLT-SE)

 

What’s this?  It seems the enemy has considerably more power than many Christians wish to grant him.  According to the parable, the farmer: god, plants good seed.  This is classic theodicy.  God did everything right and is not to blame when things go wrong.  Back to the story.  After the undocumented workers planted the good seed, something happened that was beyond the farmer’s control.

That night when the workers were sleeping, the enemy came in and planted weeds among the wheat.  Time to pause and reflect.  If the farmer is god, how did the enemy get into the field in the first place?  God does not sleep.  God is the ever vigilant, good shepherd who watches over his flock so that things like this do not happen.  Was god asleep at the wheel?  Did he not post a guard?  Who is this enemy that he can bypass all god’s vaunted security and have the time to plant weeds all through the field of wheat?

When the workers come to the master to tell him what happened, they rightfully ask the same question, how did this thing happen?  The master plants the blame squarely on the shoulders of the enemy.  He defends himself by saying that he did everything right.  It was the enemy who ruined things.  The workers are still troubled and want to know what to do about the problem.  The master is helpless to do anything about it until harvest time.  Let the wheat and the weeds grow up together.  We will sort it out later.

The reason this particular theodicy is so indigestible to me is because it portrays god as helpless.  The master in this parable is not all powerful or all knowing.  He did not know that the enemy was going to come that night.  The enemy was able to sneak in past his guard.  The master was not able to keep the enemy from planting weeds.  Nor was the master able to do anything about the weeds once they were planted.  The master is getting his lunch eaten by a bully and can do nothing about it for the time being.

Who, then, is this enemy?  Where does he come from?  For many Christians, the first time he is named is in Isaiah 14.

 

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations” (Is 14:12-13 KJVS)

 

The word, Lucifer, means morning star.  It probably refers to Venus.  The word can also be rendered bearer, or angel, of light.  Many Christians believe that the morning start referenced in the passage must be speaking of Satan: the devil.  We latch hold of the description of a being who was cast out of heaven because of his arrogance.  The Jews do not have a doctrine of Satan, however.  They, and many others, see this passage clearly referring to the King of Babylon, not a superhuman foe of the almighty god.

Still, the imagery surfaces again in the new testament.

 

“When the seventy-two disciples returned, they joyfully reported to him, “Lord, even the demons obey us when we use your name!”

“Yes,” he told them, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning! Look, I have given you authority over all the power of the enemy, and you can walk among snakes and scorpions and crush them. Nothing will injure you. But don’t rejoice because evil spirits obey you; rejoice because your names are registered in heaven.”” (Luke 10:17-20 NLT-SE)

 

“But I will continue doing what I have always done. This will undercut those who are looking for an opportunity to boast that their work is just like ours. These people are false apostles. They are deceitful workers who disguise themselves as apostles of Christ. But I am not surprised! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no wonder that his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. In the end they will get the punishment their wicked deeds deserve.” (2Cor 11:12-15 NLT-SE)

 

In both passages, Satan is described as a fallen light or an angel of light.  This is a fascinating description for the undisputed prince of darkness.  Both the above passages have other interesting components.  In the first, Jesus’ disciples come back from a successful mission trip.  They are excited because of all of the miracles they were able to perform.  Jesus seems to break out into a bit of a song.  Right there, on the spot, he declares victory over the enemy.

The problem with his declaration is that it seems a bit premature.  The enemy is still walking among us and is more powerful than ever.  He is causing sickness and suffering, storms and sadness.  The blind are still blind and the lame are wheelchair bound.  A few passages in the bible may declare victory over such things, but experience tells us a different story.  If those things were a sign of the enemy’s power, then the enemy is stronger than ever.

In the second passage, Paul suggests that the enemy is able to disguise himself as an angel of light.  This was a real problem for Paul.  In other places, we are told that the very elect might be deceived.  He said to some of his followers not to listen even if an angel from heaven came to tell them something different.  Obviously, Paul was worried about the metamorphic power of Satan to convincingly appear as an angel.

The other thing Paul is worried about is that Satan is not alone.  He has followers here on earth who are also able to disguise themselves as good guys.  The passage seems to imply that these are people who are intentionally throwing their hat in with Satan.  The people of god have quite a fight on their hands.  First, they have a god who may not be as all powerful as they were led to believe.  Second, they have a rogue angel with unfathomable powers who has aligned himself against god and his people.  Third, the enemy has friends, all with masterful disguises that can deceive even the very elect.  With all this aligned against us, how are we to cope?

 

Partners in Crime

 

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, you open the book of Job and find that god and Satan are not the arch enemies we were led to believe.

 

“One day the members of the heavenly court came to present themselves before the LORD, and the Accuser, Satan, came with them. “Where have you come from?” the LORD asked Satan. Satan answered the LORD, “I have been patrolling the earth, watching everything that’s going on.”

Then the LORD asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.”

Satan replied to the LORD, “Yes, but Job has good reason to fear God. You have always put a wall of protection around him and his home and his property. You have made him prosper in everything he does. Look how rich he is! But reach out and take away everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face!”

“All right, you may test him,” the LORD said to Satan. “Do whatever you want with everything he possesses, but don’t harm him physically.” So Satan left the LORD’s presence.” (Job 1:6-12 NLT-SE)

 

There are so many troubling aspects of the book of Job, I hardly know where to begin.  I suppose the first thing to consider is whether the story is a portrayal of real events or just a sort of religious fiction.  Should it be taken literally or allegorically?  Who wrote the story?  Was it Moses?  Was it Job?  Was it a variety of sources compiled and conflated into one story?  There are no definitive answers to any of these questions.  Scholars do not agree on the historicity, authorship, or even the message of Job.  Some would love to vote it out of the canon entirely.  Personally, I believe you have to completely jettison the book of Job in order to maintain any form of theodicy.

One of the messages that comes through loud and clear is that all of the bad things that happen to us come from god, and god alone.  Job is an absolute repudiation of any theodicy that includes an all powerful god and the enemy known as Satan.  In fact, the book of Job is a repudiation to all theodicy.  God neither requires or desires your defense.

Job’s three friends present the traditional view and defense of god.  They proclaim that god would not abuse a person without good reason.  They believe that Job must be harboring some secret sin.  This would justify the harsh actions taken by god.  It never crosses their minds that Job is being attacked by some superhuman enemy of god.  They never suggest that Job must endure because Satan is loose in the world and attacks the righteous.  They know that all things, good and bad, come from god.

The book of Job does nothing to repudiate this belief.  Rather, it strengthens it.  The repudiation is of the notion that god does not inflict the righteous.  At the end of the story, Job’s three friends are made to repent of their belief that god would not do such a thing.  They are the ones who are proven wrong, as are all who wrongly try to exonerate god for the evil done in this world.  To make the point even stronger, Job, throughout the book, accuses god of treating him unfairly.  Job maintains his innocence and insists that he is a righteous man.  He refuses to lie about his character just to let god off the hook.  God vindicates this stance by saying that Job was right all along.  Jobs rejection of theodicy earns him a gold star.  Make no mistake about it, according to the book of Job, god is in control and is the sole reason why bad things happen to good people.

Naturally, this is a problem for many Christians and non-Christians alike.  Who needs a god that allows bad things to happen to you even when you are doing what is right, especially when you are doing what is right?  With a god like that, who needs a devil?

In the previous section, I pointed out that the new testament renders the devil as a powerful being who is able to frustrate god’s sovereign plans.  The devil of the new testament is a master of disguise and has plenty of help.  He can actually take possession of people.  Even Jesus’ disciples could not cast out all the demons.

In Job, Satan is not the arch enemy of god.  In fact, he, though having been cast out, still has a key to the throne room of god.  More than a key, he seems to have a right to be there.  He was among the angels.  He was not in disguise.  No alarm was sounded.  God is not alarmed by his presence.  God and Satan engage in a friendly chat.  When god asks Satan where he came from, Satan does not attempt to lie or misdirect.  He says that he has been patrolling the earth and watching what was going on.

God does not condemn or berate the prince of darkness.  He does not send him away in disgust.  He does not ban him from his activities on earth.  Instead, god suggests Satan’s next project.  He wants to know if Satan has considered his servant, Job.  Make a note, here, it was not Satan’s idea to test Job; it was god’s.  Satan could not get to Job because god had a hedge of protection around him.  The new testament Satan would have been able to overcome this hedge of protection.  In fact, the new testament god provides no such hedge.  The Satan of Job, however, could not get past god’s defenses.

The story would be unpalatable enough at this point, but it gets considerably worse.  God revokes his protection of Job so that Satan can have his way.  Satan has to ask permission and is also limited to the rules god laid out.  This type of arrangement is suggested once in the new testament.

 

““Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.”” (Luke 22:31-32 NLT-SE)

 

Here, again, is an example of Satan asking permission to run god’s people through the sifter.  This does not sound like the same Satan that is able to overpower and deceive god’s elect at will.  As we know, Jesus’ disciples were run through the blender.  Does that mean that god gave Satan permission to sift them?  Perhaps god pointed them out and asked Satan to do his worst, Just as he did with Job?

My point is, with this view from Job, Satan is powerless to do anything that god does not want him to do.  It is not just that god passively allows bad things to happen to good people; he actively participates in singling them out and telling the enemy just how to attack them.

It gets worse.

Job is innocent of any wrong doing.  Also, god had no good reason to inflict Job with suffering.  This is not just my opinion; this is taken from the story.

 

“On another day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him.

And the LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.”

Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”” (Job 2:1-3 NIV)

 

This is almost a repeat of the passage in chapter one.  Again, Satan is presented along with the angels before the lord.  Again, Satan is back from a search and destroy mission.  Again, god points out Job as a blameless and upright man.  This time, however, god points out that Job has maintained his integrity even though Satan has incited him to ruin Job’s life without any reason.

This passage is troubling for two reasons.  One, god implies that he was incited, tempted, by Satan.  However you render the word, clearly, god was influenced by Satan’s challenge.  The purveyors of theodicy will defend god by suggesting that god was always planning to test Job in this way.  He just chose to do it in a way that coincided with Satan’s request.  In other words, Satan was fulfilling god’s preexistent will.  Unfortunately, the bible says that Satan incited god to do it.  Did god initiate the ruin of Job, or did Satan?  Either answer is equally bad as the other.

The second problem with this passage is that god acknowledges this ruination of Job was done without cause.  Again, the defenders of god will say that god had a hidden purpose that would bring about a greater good.  This is not what the bible says.  It says that it was done without cause.  The whole incident is reduced to little more than a cosmic bar bet.  Job is reduced to nothing more than a pawn so that god can make his point to Satan.  God already knew that Job was faithful and righteous.  God did not need to test him.  If you are still defending god after reading Job, you missed the point.

It gets worse.

God is a bully who does not have to be accountable to anyone for his actions because he is bigger and stronger than you.  This is not my opinion.  It is right there in the text.

 

“Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? “Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it? Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this. “What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside? Can you take them to their places? Do you know the paths to their dwellings? Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived so many years! “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble, for days of war and battle? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up [God’s] dominion over the earth? “Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water? Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?

The LORD said to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”

Then Job answered the LORD: “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer— twice, but I will say no more.”

Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm: “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? Do you have an arm like God’s, and can your voice thunder like his? Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor, and clothe yourself in honor and majesty. Unleash the fury of your wrath, look at every proud man and bring him low, look at every proud man and humble him, crush the wicked where they stand. Bury them all in the dust together; shroud their faces in the grave. Then I myself will admit to you that your own right hand can save you.

Then Job replied to the LORD: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. [You asked,] ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. [“You said,] ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 38:1-5, 12-13, 17-23, 32-35; 40:1-14; 42:1-7 NIV)

 

Understand the sequence of events.  These last few passages happen near the end of the 42 chapter book.  It starts with god conspiring with Satan to destroy a perfectly good man for no good reason except to make a point.  With god’s help, Satan takes everything away from Job including the lives of his wife, children, servants, and his dog.  He then takes away Job’s health.  Job is left in such misery, he can barely take a breath without torment.

Job’s friends defend god and try to get Job to repent.  When Job maintains his innocence, his friends accuse him of at least being prideful.  Job refused to acknowledge even that, insisting that god was doing this to him despite his innocence, not because of any guilt on Job’s part.  Job makes the mistake of questioning god, demanding to know why this was happening to him.  Job made it clear that he was prepared to accept his punishment if sin was found in him.  By that point, Job just wanted to know what he had done to be so offensive to the most high god whom he had served all his life.

Job feared that if god ever answered him, he would come as an angry whirlwind and beat him down to a pulp.  He was afraid of god.  He thought that god would not listen to him or allow him to present his case.  As it turned out, Job was right.  All of his fears came true.  God appeared in a whirlwind and gave Job the dressing down of a lifetime.  God came with booming voice and fearsome visuals.  He let Job know how powerless he, Job, was, and how powerful, he, god, was.

At one point, god suggested that when Job could match him in power, only then would god dane to listen.  Job was cowed before the all mighty god of the whirlwind and apologized profusely.  At that point, he hated himself and just wanted to curl up and die.  By the way, god never answered for his actions by giving even a hint of justification accept that he could.  In classic bully form, might makes right.

It has been suggested that the Satan in the book of Job is different from the one mentioned in the rest of scripture.  This argument is based on the fact that the character, role, and limitations of this Satan are different from the true lord of the flies.  I have no real problem with that argument except that it seems a bit arbitrary.  Still, if one can argue for a different Satan in Job, it is also fair to argue for a different god.  The god of Job also has nothing in common with the god of the bible.  Job’s god is capricious and malevolent.  Job’s god is the stuff of nightmares.  Job’s god dispenses with any need of a devil.  He neither requires nor appreciates your theodicy.

Over the last two chapters, we have explored various causes of evil and suffering in the world.  One by one we have eliminated all of them as having any explanatory power.  Human nature, original sin, the fall, and the devil all fail to account for all the sin and suffering in the world.  They all fail, in part, because the bible does not fully support any of them.  All of these causes ultimately end up going back to the original source of all things, god.