Friday, April 30, 2010

TGD: Chapter Two - America, Religion and Ridicule

Last week we covered the section Mr. Dawkins wrote about monotheism. Today we pick up with a section titled, "Secularism, The Founding Fathers and the Religion of America."

I don't have much to say about this section. He argues that America wasn't founded as a Christian nation, but as a secular nation. He notes the fact that, despite being the world's first secular country, today America is more religious than any other Western country.

I agree with Mr. Dawkins' assertion that America is a secular country, so I won't dispute it. In fact, I agree with Fred Clark that America's secularism is a good thing for everyone.

He gives a few reasons why America is so religious, despite its secular constitution. He has some good theories, but he neglects to mention the first and second great awakenings. If you really want to understand why modern-day America is so religious, you need to study those revivals.

The next section is titled, "The Poverty of Agnosticism." In this section he disagrees with people who argue that the truth about God's existence is forever unknowable. He argues that, while it might be impossible to prove God's existence, we can make an educated guess about the probability of God's existence.

The arguments presented here are the hallmark of new atheism. He makes the comparison with a small teapot orbiting the sun. He points out that, we can reasonably assume that such an object doesn't exist without making an exhaustive search of the solar system. He also points to 'fake' religions like the church of the Flying Spagetti Monster, claiming that such beings are just as plausible as God.

These arguments are both fairly similar. Both arguments assume that there is no credible evidence for God's existence and try to convince the hearer that believing in God is also very silly. Of course, the silliness of an idea has no bearing on whether or not the idea is true. If we had solid historical evidence that the Flying Spagetti Monster had raised a man from the dead, then I would take its church much more seriously. In any case, the belief in God, the Flying Spagetti Monster, Zeus, celestial teapots, or any other idea depends entirely on the evidence. Plenty of people think that quantum mechanics is a ridiculous theory, but that doesn't make it any less true.

Once again I want to stop and point out the kind of argument Dawkins is making. So far Dawkins hasn't addressed the classical proofs for God's existence, nor has he advanced his own "proof" for God's non existence. He hasn't engaged directly with the evidence for or against religion at all. Instead chapter two has been an extended appeal to ridicule.

Again we need to ask, why is Dawkins structuring the argument this way? If the appeal of atheism lies in its rationality, why start with a strong emotional argument? Why not start with the facts? The God hypothesis should stand or fall on its basis in fact, not on our subjective opinion that it is a silly idea.

Dawkins may consider himself a champion of rational thought, but he's not above using an emotional appeal if it serves his purposes.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Intelligence and Acceptance

I recently read something on internetMonk that really upset me. The post is entitled, "Are Liberals and Atheists Smarter?" and it upsets me for a few different reasons.

First of all, it's unclear what, if anything, IQ tests actually measure. Studies involving IQ tests and social science have a long and dubious history.

Secondly, the post goes with the assumption that Christianity and conservative politics belong together. This is unfortunate, but I've gotten used to it.

The thing that upset me the most was the way he wrapped it up. After making some very solid points about how we need to engage the broader culture academically, he falls back. He says that he supports this kind of engagement only up to a point. He concludes that we must be willing to be fools for Christ.

I have a problem with his use of scripture here, but for now I won't go into that. Instead I'm going to talk about why this post bothers me, personally.

For me this is about acceptance. It is about the kind of people who we think are welcome in church and the kind of people who, in our opinion, don't really belong.

The message that conservative evangelicals have been sending is clear. If you believe in evolution, you don't belong here. If you believe that the earth is more than a million years old, you don't belong here. If you vote democrat, you don't belong here. If you're gay, or your friends are gay, you don't belong here. If you ask the wrong questions, you don't belong here. I could go on, and on, and on, but I think you get the point.

Recently, Bruce Waltke, a renowned Old Testament scholar, had to resign from Reform Theological Seminary. The reason: he said, in an interview, that if evangelicals continue to deny evolution, we risk becoming a cult.

I think fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals should be more open to theological views that allow for an evolutionary model, but not because we might become a cult. I have family members who already think I'm in a cult. That's doesn't upset me.

What upsets me is the message it sends to outsiders. The message is, if you believe in evolution, you don't belong here.

I think churches often do a similar thing, not just with evolution, but with intelligence. People who ask difficult questions, people who think critically about their beliefs, people who can poke holes in the pastor's sermon, are made to feel unwelcome. They are told, either implicitly or explicitly, that they don't belong.

The question that I have had to ask, the question I have to keep asking myself is, does God accept me as I am? Would I be a better Christian if I were just a little stupider? If I didn't ask as many questions? If I learned to accept things as true without thought or critical examination?

When I ask these questions, the following words come to mind: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without affect." There I am reminded, again, that it is God who made me who I am. If God had wanted me to be stupid or thoughtless, he could have made me that way.

Going back to the scripture that was used on internetMonk, I will say that I have no problem being "a fool for Christ". I have no problem with appearing foolish in the eyes of others. As a geek, I've kind of gotten used to it.

However, if we equate being "a fool for Christ" with actual stupidity. If we equate it with not pursuing higher education, not asking hard questions, and ignoring any evidence that might contradict our understanding of the Bible, that I have a problem with. I have a problem with it, partly because it's obviously a bad idea, but mostly because it's going to force a lot of people out of the church, and prevent a lot of new people from joining the church.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Forgiving Homosexuals

Background: On the internetMonk there was a discussion about whether or not the author should review "Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead". The issue: the author of the book is in a same sex relationship. I commented that if we decide not to review this book, based only on the author's sexual orientation, then we're saying that Jesus' forgiveness only goes so far. In response someone asked the question, "Has she asked for forgiveness?" Below is my answer to that question.

Also, I wrote this post under the assumption that homosexuality is a sin. In fact I'm not entirely convinced that it is a sin, but I was hoping to convince Christians who do believe that it is a sin.

I assume she has asked for forgiveness, since she identifies as Christian. I imagine that she has confessed that she is a sinner in need of God's forgiveness, and that she has asked for God's forgiveness for her sins.

Obviously she is a practicing homosexual. I can think of a few ways these things can be reconciled.

First, she might not believe that homosexuality is a sin. Does this disqualify her? Does this mean she isn't saved? I don't believe so. I don't think we need to be fully aware of all our sins in order to be forgiven. The important thing is that she has asked for forgiveness.

As an example, Leviticus says that eating shellfish is a sin. I assume (based mainly on Paul's letters) that the law against eating shellfish does not apply to gentile believers. In fact, I'm a big fan of eating shellfish. However, even if I'm wrong I'm not worried. I believe that Jesus will forgive me for sinning in ignorance. I believe that Jesus has forgiven me for the sins that I have committed unawares.

Second, she might know that it is a sin, but be unwilling to repent. This is more complicated. I think of the words of Saint Augustine who prayed, "Lord, give me chastity and constancy, but not yet." I believe that a person in this situation is still saved, although they are deeply conflicted. There is a danger that someone in this position might give up the struggle. They might choose to reject Jesus' forgiveness. However, if they persist they will certainly be saved.

Third, she might accept that homosexuality is a sin and believe that Jesus forgives even unrepentant sinners. This position seems a little shaky, although, wasn't it Luther who said, "Sin boldly, believe more boldly still"? This is a tough question, and I'm not sure what I think about this position.

On the one hand, it seems like she should give up her sin in order to follow Jesus. On the other hand, she is being obedient to God in other ways. So we see her obedience clearly isn't perfect, but then we must ask ourselves, who is perfectly obedient? I can only think of Jesus, who said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

In conclusion, I want to say that, as sins go, homosexuality is often unfairly targeted. Most men in the church struggle with an addiction to pornography. Many American Christians sin by bearing false witness. I personally struggle with anger, as do many other Christians. When Christians struggle with these sins, we rarely ask, "Is this person saved?" even if the person is clearly unrepentant. We have more patience for these sins than we do for homosexuality.

I wonder what would happen if we treated all these sins the same as we treated homosexuality? One thing is certain: we wouldn't have nearly as many sinners in church.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

TGD: Chapter Two - On Monotheism

I'm picking up my review of "The God Delusion" where I left off. This week we begin with the section on monotheism.

In this section Dawkins talks about the three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He then explains that Christianity and Islam are both offshoots of Judaism.

He writes that Christianity was founded by Paul of Tarsus as a less exclusive, less 'ruthlessly monotheistic' form of Judaism.

Some of you might be confused. Wasn't Christianity founded by Jesus? Or at least by Peter, Jesus' chief disciple? His claim that Paul founded Christianity is probably based on the fact that Paul's letters are among the earliest Christian documents. That said, this claim has some serious problems.

In his early letters, Paul has to defend his position as a leader within the church. If Paul were the founder of the religion, he would have brought that up in his defense. Instead he freely admits that he joined the religion after Jesus' death and resurrection, and that the only reason he has the right to be a leader is because Jesus appeared to him after his resurrection.

Whatever we think about Paul's claim, the fact that he had to make this argument shows that he wasn't yet an established leader in the church.

Leaving that aside for now, Dawkins goes on to talk about Islam. He writes that Muhammad and his followers retained the uncompromising monotheism of Judaism and used military conquest to spread the faith. Then, as if to be fair, Dawkins points out that Christianity was also spread by the sword, first by Emperor Constantine, and later by crusaders and conquistadors.

Since I'm not Muslim, I won't respond to Dawkins' comments about Islam, but I will reply to his comments about Christianity.

In this section Dawkins gives the impression that Christianity was founded by Paul, and then popularized (and legitimized) by Constantine. The truth is, by the time Constantine conquered Rome and made Christianity the official religion, it had already grown quite popular. The religion survived more than two hundred and fifty years of Roman persecution, and had grown steadily during that time.

The question we must ask is, why did so many people convert to Christianity during an age when Christians were being persecuted? What was it about Christianity that people found so appealing that they were willing to risk being burned alive or being eaten by lions? This is the question that Dawkins needs to answer and it is the question that he is deliberately avoiding, for now at least.

Having said my piece, I will concede that Dawkins does have a point. Since the time of Constantine, Christians have been using violence to spread their beliefs. The idea that the message of God's love could be spread at the end of a sword or a gun is the single most destructive and perverse error that Christians have ever made. This is a topic I've touched on before, and it's something I plan to talk about more in the future. For now, let me just say that Dawkins has a good point here.

Dawkins briefly mentions Buddhism and Confucianism, only to say that he has nothing against those religions. He thinks they shouldn't be treated as religions, but as ethical systems. I know that in the West it is popular to think about Buddhism this way, but traditional Chinese Buddhism includes a belief in reincarnation. I doubt Dawkins would consider a belief in reincarnation to be more rational than a belief in resurrection from the dead. I can only conclude that he didn't do his research.

Dawkins finishes the section on monotheism by talking about deism. Deists believe in an impersonal God, who designed and created the universe and then let it run its course.

Even though he doesn't believe in it, Dawkins has a clear fondness for this idea of God, He writes, "The deist God of the eighteenth-century enlightenment is an altogether grander being: worthy of his cosmic creation, loftily unconcerned with human affairs, sublimely aloof from our private thoughts and hopes, caring nothing for our messy sins or mumbled contritions."

The great hope of the Christian faith is that God we worship is not at all like the God Dawkins describes. Our God cares about humans; he knows our thoughts and hopes; he is concerned about our messy sins. The great joy of every Christian is that God has joined us, in our messy state, and one day we will join him, in his perfection.

I find this passage to be very revealing of Dawkins' beliefs. Most people who are angry with God are angry because he is apathetic and distant and he allows people to suffer. On the other hand, Dawkins seems to be offended by the idea that God might actually care about us.

Before I conclude this post, I want to add one last comment about deism. Deism may be a dead religion, but deist philosophy has had a lasting impact on how we think about God.

Most people, even people who believe in God, tend to think that the universe runs itself. They believe that if God disappeared tomorrow the universe would be largely unaffected. The sun would still shine and the grass would still grow. No physical or chemical or biological process would be affected in any way by God's departure.

This is not monotheism. Monotheism is the belief in one God, who created everything, and without whom, nothing could exist. God didn't just create everything, he sustains everything from moment to moment. If we take God out of the equation, then the universe would disappear along with him.

The difference between these two philosophical positions is striking, and it's part of the reason why conversations between people with different beliefs are so hard. At a basic level, theists and atheists aren't speaking the same language.

Despite that, I'm having fun reading through Dawkins' book. I hope you're enjoying it as well.

Monday, April 19, 2010


With all the posts that I've been writing recently, I've been thinking a lot about the role of doubt. Between reading Mr. Dawkins' forthright attacks on religion, and rethinking the role of faith in my own religious beliefs, I suppose it is only natural that I should think also think about doubt.

It started as I was reading Mr. Dawkins book and I began to ask myself, what if his arguments are convincing? What if he is able to make a convincing argument that God never existed, or that Jesus never rose from the dead? Would I receive such evidence? If, after a thorough examination, his argument proved to be sound, would I renounce my faith?

Yes, is the only answer that I can reasonably give. I cannot go on believing that something is true if I know for a fact that it is false.

Of course, I'm very doubtful that Mr. Dawkins will be able to make such an argument, but there's a chance that I might be wrong about that. And that's the point. There's always a chance that we might be wrong. That's why we have doubts.

Recently I've been experiencing some doubts of my own. I've doubted whether or not God is really as good, as loving, as faithful as I believe him to be. This doubt isn't based on reason, but rather on my own fears and insecurities. I'm not persuaded by this doubt, but I acknowledge that it does exist.

I can see doubt at work in other Christians as well. It looks a little different for everyone, but I suspect that most Christians struggle with doubt from time to time.

As an example, there's a woman I know. She goes to church regularly, she prays, she reads the bible every day.

She's also a victim of sexual abuse.

Understandably, she has a lot of struggles. She has a hard time believing that God is really good. She has a hard time trusting that God will take care of her. I don't think anyone can blame her for this.

Doubt is a reality for many. How we face our doubts is a question that needs to be considered.

As a final example, I'll talk about an online discussion I participated in recently. The discussion was about the early chapters of Genesis. Quite a few people in the discussion were young earth creationists, who favored a strongly literal reading of Genesis. One person argued that if we hold a non-literal interpretation of Genesis, then we're questioning the reliability of God's word.

Ignoring the whole creation/evolution issue for now, I want to consider how this person is responding to doubt. Clearly, doubt is the enemy. Indeed, doubt is a powerful enemy. Questioning their interpretation of just one part of the bible threatens to unravel their whole belief system.

I don't think that's a healthy way to respond to doubt. We need to allow for the possiblity that we might be wrong. If we don't allow ourselves to ever experience doubt, then we won't ever be able to learn when we're wrong.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

TGD: Chapter Two - On Theology, Taxes, the Trinity and Catholicism

In last week's post I was so busy responding to the opening sentence of chapter two I didn't have time to talk about what chapter two is actually about. Chapter two is about the God hypothesis, which Mr. Dawkins defines as, "There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us." He talks about some of the more common forms that this hypothesis takes. He spends some time offering specific critiques of various religions, but his main point is to argue that all religions are fundamentally similar and that they are all fundamentally wrong.

Considering that this chapter is written about religion and it is in a book about God, it is surprisingly light on theological content. Last week I had to spend a whole post explaining everything that was wrong with Mr. Dawkins' description of the God of the Old Testament. Mr. Dawkins wouldn't have had to study too hard to find out that his description was terribly inaccurate. Indeed, I'm sure Mr. Dawkins is aware that religious Jews believe that their God is a God of love and a God of justice. This fact alone should have caused Mr. Dawkins to wonder why his own view was so different from theirs. If he were a humble person he would have listened to what they have to say, because most religious Jews are far more familiar with the Old Testament* than he is. If he were an inquisitive person, he could have asked a Rabbi why the Jewish people believe what they do about God. Any Rabbi worth his salt could have easily corrected some of Mr. Dawkins' most egregious mistakes. Mr. Dawkins didn't do this (or, if he did, he left it out of the book) because it would ruin the argument that he is trying to make.

Many people have taken Mr. Dawkins to task for failing to engage with any serious theology. He mentions this in the preface to the paperback edition. He argues that he only needed to engage with theological arguments that seek to prove God's existence (which he does in chapter 3). If he can show that God most likely does not exist, then it shouldn't matter one way or the other what theologians have to say about God's character, or any of his other attributes.

If that's the case, then I have to ask the obvious question: why not start with chapter 3? Why waste time insulting a being that doesn't even exist? If the debate is really about God's existence, and not God's character, why not skip straight to the part where you prove that God doesn't exist?

That's something to think about as we go over this book. Now I'm going to pick up where I left off.

The first section of chapter 2 is titled, "Polytheism". You would think that I could safely ignore this passage since I'm not a polytheist. Unfortunately, that is not the case. It seems that Mr. Dawkins doesn't have a lot to say about polytheism, so instead he rambles. He ends up talking about Christianity quite a bit. I'm going to respond to a few of the points he makes along the way.

First of all, Mr. Dawkins writes that we shouldn't promote religious organizations by granting them tax-exempt status. He points out that society could benefit from the extra tax money, and that allowing televangelists to collect large amounts of money tax-free isn't exactly great for society.

I have to admit that when Mr. Dawkins describes it like that, it does sound like a good idea. There are some Christian ministries that abuse their tax exempt status. It is tempting to think that we could put those ministries out of business and reduce our National debt at the same time.

Realistically, though, if stopped giving churches tax-exempt status, then small community congregations would be hit the hardest. It would weed out a lot of smaller religious organizations that benefit the community around them, while allowing larger, more parasitic ministries to survive. Men like Oral Roberts or Joel Olsteen would continue to make boatloads of money; they would just have slightly less take home pay. The pros don't outweigh the cons.

Second, Mr. Dawkins writes about the doctrine of the trinity. He quotes Thomas Jefferson, who said, "Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man has ever had a distinct idea of the trinity."

I would disagree with both Dawkins and Jefferson on this point. The authors of the Nicean creed clearly had a distinct idea of the trinity. It can be translated roughly as, "God exists as three persons of one substance." Saint Patrick used the analogy of a clover, which has three leaves, but is still only one clover. These explanations may not be as precise or as distinct as Dawkins or Jefferson would like them to be, but they are certainly distinct enough for reason to act upon.

The last thing I want to comment on for now is Mr. Dawkins' words about Catholicism. He writes, "But it is especially the Roman Catholic brand of Christianity that pushes its recurrent flirtation with polytheism towards runaway inflation. The trinity is (are?) joined by Mary, 'Queen of Heaven', a goddess in all but name, who surely runs God himself a close second as a target of prayers. The pantheon is further swollen by an army of saints, whose intercessory power makes them, if not demigods, well worth approaching on their own specialist subjects."

That's a long quote, but he's just getting warmed up. He writes for several paragraphs about the polytheistic quality of Catholic worship. I'm not a Catholic myself, so I'm not going to argue with him about this, but I feel the need to point something out.

For a man who claims to not have any religious beliefs, a man who says that all religions are equally ridiculous, he seems to have a lot of contempt for the Catholic church. Since he has no religious feelings of his own, I would expect Dawkins not to care if Catholics worship one God or an army of saints. As it stands, the language used in this section sounds like it comes from Oliver Cromwell, not the avowed atheist Richard Dawkins.

I point this out because I fully expect to read, later in this book, about the advantages of a secular, atheist society. I expect to hear something about how a world without religion would be free from petty religious quarrels. If that's where he's going, he might want to tone down the anti-Catholic rhetoric here.

* Technically, the Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible, is slightly different from the Christian Old Testament, but these differences are relatively minor. I hope my Jewish readers will forgive me for using the two terms interchangeably.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Religion and the Kingdom of God

I've mentioned before that I'm a fan of It is a blog that I would recommend to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the gospel and the Christian faith. Sadly, this past Easter the author, Michael Spencer, passed away. I'm not going to write a tribute to him. Many other people have already written wonderful tributes to him. Still, today I'm going to be referring to a topic he wrote quite a lot about: the coming evangelical collapse. If you're interested in what I write about it here you might want to check out his posts on the subject.

A while back I wrote about the Kingdom of God. I explained that Christians have many different ideas about what the Kingdom of God actually is. One of the more common ideas is that the Kingdom of God is a specific religious group. Today I would like to talk about religion and how it relates to the Kingdom of God.

My thoughts in this area are strongly influenced by the Internet Monk, Michael Spencer. In his blog, which is subtitled, journeys through the post evangelical wilderness, he wrote about the coming evangelical collapse. He believed that American Evangelical Christianity was headed into a period of decline, and that it wouldn't be recovering anytime soon.

What is Evangelical Christianity? The best definition I can give is that an Evangelical Christian is someone who believes that the only thing that a person needs to enter God's Kingdom is to believe that Jesus Christ died to pay for their sins and that he rose again three days later. As a whole, I see the Evangelical movement as a poster-child for the idea that the Kingdom of God is purely a matter of having the correct religious beliefs.

I also believe that the movement is headed towards collapse. Even though I'm an Evangelical myself (as is Michael Spencer) I don't have much hope for the movement.

Why is that? I think there's a lesson from church history that will help us to understand.

In the middle of the first Century, Jesus' followers faced a crisis related to religion. All of Jesus' early followers were Jewish. Jesus himself was Jewish and during his life he preached almost exclusively to Jews. However, after Jesus ascended into heaven a funny thing began to happen. Through the work of the Holy Spirit a large number of gentiles (i.e. non Jews) began to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. By about 55 A.D. the gentile believers began to outnumber the Jewish believers.

Early on people asked the question, do these gentiles need to convert to Judaism? At first the answer seemed obvious, of course they do. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. His first followers were all Jewish. Obviously anyone else who wanted to follow Jesus would have to be Jewish as well. Specifically, the would have to be circumcised, keep the sabbath and eat kosher foods.

However, as the movement expanded, and more and more gentiles joined in, the answer started to change. People began to notice that God's Spirit was at work among the gentiles just as it was among the Jews. Many people clung to the idea that the gentile believers should convert to Judaism, but others noticed that God didn't seem to care. They thought to themselves, if God doesn't discriminate between Jews and gentiles, why should we? If God accepts these people as they are, who are we to push them away?

In the end it was decided that gentiles didn't have to convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus. This decision blew open the doors of the church. For the first time, God's Kingdom was available to anybody.

It's easy to say that that was a different time. One could claim that the first century was a unique period in Christian history, but I disagree. In fact, I think that twenty-first century Evangelicals could learn a lesson from these first century followers of Jesus. I think we need to learn a lesson about how to accept people who are different: people from different cultures and backgrounds, people of different ethnicities, people who speak different languages, and even people with different religious beliefs. None of these things can prevent people from entering the Kingdom of God.

Does this mean I'm abandoning the gospel? Am I saying that it doesn't matter that Jesus died for us, or that he was resurrected? Of course not. In fact, it is because of Jesus' death and resurrection that I can say, with confidence, that no one is excluded.

When Paul was explaining the gospel to the Ephesians he told them that when Jesus was crucified he put to death the wall of hostility between Jews and gentiles. Did Jesus give his life to put an end to the barrier between Jews and gentiles, only to create a new barrier between Christians and non-Christians? Did Jesus' death on the cross bring reconciliation for all humanity, or did it merely move the goal posts?

The problem with the Evangelical church isn't that they focus on the gospel. The problem is in how they preach the gospel. The Evangelical gospel is somewhat limited. Most Evangelicals only talk about how Jesus forgave our sins. They don't talk about how Jesus reconciled us with God and with each other. They don't talk about how Jesus frees us from oppression. They don't talk about how Jesus heals our disease and gives us victory over death. If they do talk about those things, it is always secondary to the forgiveness of sins.

This focus on sin creates a barrier. Since the focus is on the forgiveness of sins, they usually start out by telling people that they're sinners. Most of the time, this drives people away.

Some Evangelicals realize that this is poor salesmanship, so they try to spin the message so that it doesn't sound so bad, but the problem is more fundamental than that. The problem is that they're preaching a message of exclusion and the gospel is a message of inclusion. The gospel is an invitation, not a threat. If the Evangelical church can wrap its head around that idea, then it will realize that the coming collapse isn't such a bad thing after all. If it takes this idea to heart, the collapse might be avoided altogether.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

TGD: Chapter Two - On the Character of God

Chapter Two of "The God Delusion" begins with the following sentence: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." Today's post is going to be a response to this one sentence. Now, I don't pan on walking through the rest of the book one sentence at a time, however, since I worship the God whom Dawkins is slandering, it seems only fair that I should offer a rebuttal.

I'll start by responding to the most egregiously false accusations.

On the top of that list would be the claim that the God of the Old Testament is unforgiving. This is simply not true. Throughout the Old Testament we see God forgiving people. He repeatedly forgives the nations of Israel and Judah, in the book of Jonah he forgave the entire city of Nineveh, which was the capital of one of the most notoriously bloodthirsty empires in the ancient world, and he famously forgave King David when he committed both murder and adultery. Those are just a few examples.

What's more, whenever God does punish people, it's almost always after he has been patient and forgiving over an extended period of time. He waited four hundred years to punish the Amorites for, among other things, ritually sacrificing infants. If anything, the God of the Old Testament is forgiving to a fault.

Then there's the accusation that God is filicidal. I will freely admit that I had to look this one up. Filicide is the act of killing one's own son or daughter. Presumably this refers to the crucifixion of Jesus. That doesn't happen in the Old Testament, but we'll ignore that for now.

First of all, Jesus was a grown adult who went willingly to his death. More importantly, God wasn't the one who killed him. Finally, as John Cleese might say, he got better.

(If we assume he's sticking to the Old Testament, this could be referring to the book of Exodus, in which God calls the Jewish people his firstborn son. The main problem with this theory is that the Jewish people are still alive and well.)

The accusation that God is megalomaniacal is more humorous than anything else. The God of the Old Testament made the whole universe out of nothing and Dawkins is accusing him of having delusions of grandeur. To what great heights could a delusional, omnipotent deity aspire to? Does he take a break from ruling the heavens and the earth so he can pretend to be the King of Scotland? Does the one who formed a human being out of dirt like to pretend that he invented the sandwich? In the preface to the paperback edition, Dawkins said that he wanted this sentence to come across as humorous*. This is one place where I think he succeeded admirably, although not as he intended.

The claim that God is racist presumably refers to how God treats the Jewish people compared with everyone else. It's true that God had a special arrangement with the nation of Israel, but that arrangement does not include special treatment. The Old Testament makes it clear that God cares for the nations surrounding Israel, just like he cares for Israel. In fact, as part of their special arrangement, the Israelites have an obligation to be a blessing to the nations around them. God's treaty with Israel isn't about God loving Israel more than everyone else. It's about God wanting Israel to be a blessing to everyone else, which is more like the opposite of racism.

Of all the accusations that Mr. Dawkins makes against God, the one that is the most accurate is that God is jealous. God is jealously protective of the Jewish people. He wants them to stay faithful to the promise that they had made to serve him. Even though they repeatedly break that promise, God keeps his promise and remains faithful to them. God becomes jealous, but he does not abandon him. In my mind, that is one of God's best qualities. He stays faithful to his people, even when they cause him pain.

The last accusation that I'm going to address directly is that God is unjust. In many ways that one word sums up the whole sentence. The central point being made is that God's reign of the earth, as described in the Old Testament, is unjust.

The question is to big for me to provide anything close to a thorough answer. Instead I will do my best to present, in brief, what the Old Testament has to say on the subject.

In the beginning, God made everything good. Humanity lived in paradise with God and God provided them with everything they would ever need. God gave them only one rule and it was easy to obey. Things fell apart when humanity broke that law. God punishes humanity in order to restore justice, and God promises to fix what is broken.

This is the basic pattern of Genesis 1-3, and it forms a template that recurs over and over again throughout scripture. The template goes something like this: 1) God does something good for an individual or a group of people, 2) sooner or later that individual or group does something evil, 3) God responds to the evil that has been done and 4) God promises to one day get rid of evil and replace it with good. Of all these steps, step 3 is the most flexible. In some cases it seems to be missing (in these cases God is being patient and forgiving). In other cases, God asks the person to make a sacrifice before forgiving the sin. Very rarely, God refuses to forgive the sin and punishes the person for what they have done. As I said above that last option almost always happens after God has already shown an incredible amount of patience and forgiveness.

When people question God's justice they concentrate on steps 2 and 3. They question why God regards certain actions as evil; they question whether or not the people who committed evil were truly responsible for their actions; they question the methods God uses to punish people; they question God's decision to forgive in some cases and not in other cases.

But the claim that God is just does not depend primarily on steps 2 and 3. The books of Ecclesiastes and Job openly acknowledge that how God punishes evil, or fails to punish evil, can seem very unjust at times. Instead, the claim that God is just depends on steps 1 and 4. God is just because in the beginning he made everything good and in the end he will make everything good again. Moreover he has promised us that we will be included in that future where everything is restored, even though we sometimes do evil. That is why I can say with confidence that God is, indeed, just.

This was a bit of a dense post. If there's something you don't agree with, or something that doesn't make sense, feel free to post it in the comments. I look forward to reading them. Thank you.

* In the preface, Dawkins was responding to critics who complained that his writing was too shrill. The above sentence was the example most often given. Dawkins wrote, "It is not for me to say whether I succeeded, but my intention was closer to robust but humorous broadside than shrill polemic." I will say that I think the sentence failed to be humorous, if only because the idea is so unoriginal. As for the broadside, I think it missed its mark. Most of the shots are wildly off course, as I have already shown.

Monday, April 5, 2010

What's the Meaning of Grace?

Grace is an odd word. Unless you've spent some time in churches, you're not very likely to know what Christians mean when they use the word "grace". In fact, I'm guessing that more than a few people who are raised Christian don't really understand what is meant by the word.

The word "grace" in the New Testament refers to God's unmerited favor. It describes the love that God has given to everyone, whether they deserve it or not. When we say that we have received God's grace, we are saying that God has blessed us, not because we are so awesome, but because God is so loving.

I've seen many people who don't understand this. They've heard people talk about grace, but they still believe that we must work to earn God's love. They believe that the people receive God's favor because, in some sense, they deserve it.

This is not what what we mean when we talk about grace. If we say that we have received something by grace, then we are insisting that we did not do anything special to deserve it.

I understand why there's so much confusion about this topic. We want to believe that God is kind to us because, for some reason or another, we deserve it. We don't like the idea that God can show his love to us even when we don't deserve it.

Still, we need to grasp this fundamental truth. This basic idea that the love that God has shown us is given, and not earned, is essential to our faith. It reminds us that we are not special people who have been given God's special blessing, which is only for the truly enlightened. It reminds us that the love that we have received isn't for us.

The love that we have received is for the whole world, for every last person who needs God's love, whether they deserve it or not. So we are free to share God's love with everyone. We know that they don't need to say or do anything special to deserve it.

If anyone's interested in hearing more about what God has done for us, I'd recommend this post on She Laughs at the Days.

Friday, April 2, 2010

TGD: Chapter One - Religion and Respect

This post covers the entire first chapter of "The God Delusion". The first chapter is really just an introduction, so I can breeze through it. Starting with chapter two we get into the meat of his argument and I'll slow down so I can deal with it in more detail.

In "The God Delusion", Mr. Dawkins is making the case against religious belief in general. It's a sizable task and we'll see how good a job Mr. Dawkins does with it. He uses the first chapter to set the terms of the debate; to explain exactly what he's arguing for and what he's arguing against.

This chapter is broken up into two parts. The first part deals with what Dawkins refers to as "Einsteinian religion".

"Einsteinian religion" refers to any belief system that equates the natural universe, or the laws that govern it, with God. Such belief systems don't have a supernatural component. Mr. Dawkins has no problem with this sort of religion; he considers it another form of atheism. His only problem is that when people with this sort of belief system use words like God and religion they confuse the debate. He wants the reader to know that this isn't what he has in mind when he's making the case against religion.

As you might have guessed, Albert Einstein believed in this sort of God, although he was hardly the first person to think along these lines. That honor belongs to Baruch Spinoza, the father of modern pantheism.

Personally, I wonder what Einstein would think about someone lumping his beliefs in with atheism. I suspect that Einstein's use of the word God was intentional. I suspect that Einstein understood that his belief system, like all belief systems, depended on certain metaphysical (i.e. non-scientific) claims. I'm not sure that Mr. Dawkins grasps that fact.

However, since I'm not a pantheist myself, I won't argue the point any further.

The second part of this chapter deals with the amount of respect that (supernatural) religious beliefs are given in modern, secular countries, especially America. He argues that, in general, we give religious beliefs far more respect than they deserve. He points out that it is generally considered rude to criticize another person's religious beliefs, no matter how ridiculous they are. He also gives several examples where countries will grant privileges to people based on their religious beliefs.

I don't agree with Mr. Dawkins about this, but I think he does make some good points. Specifically, there does need to be room for people to be able to speak critically about other people's religious beliefs. No ideas should ever be considered completely exempt from scrutiny. Personally, I welcome Mr. Dawkins' criticisms of my beliefs and I have no problem speaking critically about his beliefs. In the proper context, critical discussions like this can be beneficial to both parties.

The thing is, you really, really need to have the proper context for a conversation like this. For a person with deeply held religious beliefs, those beliefs are often part of their core identity. For this reason, it really shouldn't come as a surprise that people will get offended when you mock their religious beliefs. This is why criticizing people's religious beliefs is often considered off limits, at least in the public sphere. This is why governments will, at times, bend over backwards to respect people with different religious beliefs.

In my mind, the solution isn't to show less tolerance to people's unusual religious beliefs, but to extend that tolerance to cover nonreligious people. Just as wise governments go out of their way not to offend people's religious beliefs, they should be equally respectful toward people without religious beliefs. (For example, the government shouldn't erect a large cross on the land they own on top of a giant hill in the middle of the city, but that's another post).

Having said that, I'm glad that Mr. Dawkins feels free to mock religious beliefs. This series would be much less interesting if he felt the need to be polite and deferential whenever the topic of God came up.