Category Archives: Religion

Set my hair afire, Lord!

Set my soul afire Lord
For thy holy word
Burn it deep within me
Let thy voice be heard

“Set My Soul Afire” — Hymn

December 24, 1996 was a date I will probably never forget. My mother will never let me.

I was 17 at the time — in my junior year of high school. We had gone to our church for the Christmas Eve candlelight service. My friend Matt, who was quite religious but also quite alone in the world, chose to come with us. He even stayed at our home that night at my mother’s insistence because she believed nobody should be alone on Christmas.

As we were walking outside of the worship center (unlike Catholics, evangelical Protestants are very careful not to ascribe spiritual significance to physical objects like buildings…so they could not call it a sanctuary), I was having a little adolescent fun with my candle. My mother was directly in front of me, and I was teasing her by blowing the flame not so much out as forward.

Unfortunately, I did not have as much control over the flame as I thought I had, and the ribbon in her hair caught fire. Matt and I rushed up to her and quickly stamped out the flames, which did end up singeing her hair a bit. Men who were walking out behind us were in the midst of removing their coats so they could push her to the ground and put out her hair.

For a couple of years later, whenever the congregation would sing “Set My Soul Afire,” I would emphatically replace the word “soul” with “hair” just to tease her. I think I get that from Dad — Mom was not amused.

Book Review: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis transported the reader into a world of ghosts and phantoms where the line between heaven and hell is blurrier than traditional Christianity might let on. In this world there is no St. Peter, no pearly gates and no righteous judgment from the Almighty.

As an inventive theological treatise, Lewis proposed that some people end up in hell not because they are sent there but because they don’t really want to be in heaven. And who would God be to force heaven on those who really don’t want to be there?

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’

Lewis depicted several individuals of the latter variety in very human and even sympathetic terms. One particularly heartwrenching story involved the ghost of a mother whose misguided love for her son (who ended up in heaven) actually separated her from him because she put him before God. Lewis was careful not to paint the hell-bound as villains but as tragic figures often with the best intentions who just couldn’t get their priorities straight.

But that’s where things got messy. In his gallant effort to marry the incongruous concepts of a loving God and eternity in hell, Lewis stumbled upon a truly troubling notion: that we’ve all been set up.

‘You mean,’ said the Tragedian, ‘you mean – you did not love me truly in the old days.’

‘Only in a poor sort of way,’ she answered. ‘I have asked you to forgive me. There was a little real love in it. But what we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you.’

‘And now!’ said the Tragedian with a hackneyed gesture of despair. ‘Now, you need me no more?’

‘But of course not!’ said the Lady; and her smile made me wonder how both the phantoms could refrain from crying out with joy.

‘What needs could I have,’ she said, ‘now that I have all? I am full now, not empty. I am in Love himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak. you shall be the same. Come and see. We shall have no need for one another now: we can begin to love truly.’

So, just to recap, we are placed in a world that, cruelly, prevents us from seeing reality clearly…even at the cost of our own souls. Like so many Christians, C.S. Lewis insisted on making life on earth out to be a test, written by an omniscient being who knew the outcome ahead of time. If life on earth prevents us from seeing clearly and truly loving God and each other, then why exactly did God create earth in the first place? Couldn’t God have prevented this whole silly dilemma?

Lewis was a brilliant author and Christianity’s best ambassador. But the gaping theological plot holes in The Great Divorce prove that even one of the greatest minds in recent history can be made to look foolish when defending an idea as silly as Christianity.

Famous last words

Said you heard every word
But I watched you turn away
Your eyes grew colder than winter
“Love is so intrusive”
I thought I heard you say
And laugh so unconvincingly

Famous last words
‘I’m not ready yet’
‘I won’t be gone a minute…’

Narrow is the road
And too high a price to pay
Loneliness is such a sanctuary
Empty are the musings
And wasted are the days
You said you were only waiting…

Famous last words
‘I’m not ready yet’
‘I won’t be gone a minute,
But I won’t forget’
Famous last words
Tomorrow never comes
Will I ever know that I was in love?

Said you heard every word
But I watched you turn away
You said you were only waiting…

Famous last words
‘I’m not ready yet’
‘I won’t be gone a minute’

— Famous Last Words by Jars of Clay

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you may have noticed that I have become incredibly gunshy and risk-averse. I’m instinctively not a risk taker. I have literally told friends that I have made it a life goal to take as few risks as possible in order to prevent the negative consequences.

But you know what? As they wisely responded to me, a certain degree of risk is unavoidable in life. You take a risk getting in your car and driving to work every day or walking outside in a storm. Sure, you can keep the risks you take to an absolute minimum, but where does that get you in life?

Everyone who knows me even a little bit knows I love (and quote incessantly from) Seinfeld, but I also enjoy a number of other shows, including Family Guy. One of my favorite episodes involves baby Stewie Griffin — known for his plots to take over the world — traveling in time to meet his future self.

Baby Stewie is disappointed to find that his future self is not of the world domination variety. Instead he is a lonely virgin with a dead-end job who refuses to take a great opportunity (a very sweet and interested woman at work). When Baby Stewie cajoles him into it, he fails miserably at the sexual experience. The woman goes back to work and tells the manager about what happened on their disappointing date, and Adult Stewie loses his job as a result. He also forgets about the candles he had lit for this event and accidentally burns his apartment down…blaming Baby Stewie for everything. Literally by avoiding risks in life, Adult Stewie lost what little he had.

At the end of all this, Baby Stewie asks Adult Stewie how he turned out to be so pathetic. He pauses for a moment to recall and then remembers that he nearly drowned in a pool when he was a baby and that made him averse to risk for the rest of his life…and basically rendered him a loser. He never learned that just because one risk has a bad consequence that all risks have bad consequences. Instead, like me, he merely retreated because he was living his whole life in fear of what might go wrong.

A horrified Baby Stewie goes back in time to prevent the pool incident from occurring because he decides that it would be more important for him to alter the space-time continuum than to end up like Adult Stewie did.

Transitioning to my real life, I realize that I could do better for myself if only I took a few measured risks. You’re never going to see me throwing down thousands of dollars in a casino or running one of those get-rich-quick schemes, but I must teach (force?) myself to stick my neck out a little bit once in a while if the risk is worthwhile.

I took a small risk recently, and thus far it has paid some very nice dividends. This was one day that was not wasted. Let’s just hope those are not famous last words.

Creation museum misleads children while extorting their parents

In Petersburg, Kentucky, just a short drive from the Cincinnati International Airport, there’s a con going on.

A group called Answers in Genesis recently opened the crown jewel in its plan for world domination: the Creation Museum. According to the official website (www.creationmuseum.org), more than 4,000 people visited on the first day.

What exactly will you find in the $27 million Creation Museum? There’s a display of children playing with docile, plant-eating dinosaurs (because, if Genesis is true, then humans and dinosaurs must have coexisted peacefully); a planetarium designed to explain how we can see light from stars that are only a few thousand years old even though they are millions of light years away; a scale model of Noah’s Ark, designed to prove that all “created kinds” could have fit on it, including dinosaurs; and a movie-style ride complete with moving seats and water sprays to simulate the global flood.

This might sound like crazy fun until you get to a really bizarre, heavy-handed exhibit that shows a wrecking ball marked “Millions of Years” destroying a church and apparently causing teenage boys to watch porn (unfortunately this part is merely implied), young girls to have abortions and parents to divorce.

You see, Answers in Genesis isn’t just putting on a fun, harmless display of the Bible as literature. This organization is using theme park-class special effects to train children as cultural warriors in the fight against modern science.

I wish this were an anomaly…a fringe spectacle in some remote hamlet in the Appalachians. But it’s not. Answers in Genesis claims that they built the museum near Cincinnati because it’s easily accessible from all over the country. In other words, it was strategically located to reach as many people as possible. Interestingly, once all of these people arrive, the tickets are strategically priced to gouge them. What other museum charges each adult $20?

So perhaps there’s an ulterior motive afoot here. Maybe Answers in Genesis isn’t a non-profit organization after all. Many religious leaders have been effective scam artists, from Jim Bakker to Benny Hinn to Kent “Dr. Dino” Hovind. Here’s hoping the authorities take a really close look at Ken Ham and his Creation Museum.

Do you believe in an a priori God?

Many moderate Christians reject intelligent design as science in favor of evolution, which I must admit is a step in the right direction. So how exactly do they justify their belief in God? Many use a priori arguments—clever feats of mental gymnastics that are designed to be immune to evidence and thus as indestructible as The Great Pyramids. But are they logically valid, or is atheist Sam Harris correct to describe them as “epistemological Ponzi schemes”?

Side note: In case you’re wondering as I initially did, a Ponzi scheme is a form of investment fraud that promises huge returns but relies on other investors and not on actual profits. You might have heard the synonymous term pyramid scheme—and about the investment pyramids that have famously collapsed under their own weight.

Pascal’s Wager

As an example of an a priori argument, let’s take Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal suggested that we should believe in God and accept Christianity because it’s a safe bet. After all, according to decision theory, if we’re right, then we receive an eternal reward—and if we’re wrong, we lose nothing. But if we fail to accept Christianity and we are wrong, then we are eternally punished.

In a 1992 episode of that brilliant philosophical treatise known as The Simpsons, Homer the Heretic pointed out the absurdity of Pascal’s Wager to his wife Marge:

Homer: Whats the big deal about going to some building every Sunday? I mean, isn’t God everywhere?
Bart: Amen, brother!
Homer: And don’t you think the almighty has better things to do than wonder where one guy spends one measly hour of his week?
Bart: Tell it, daddy!
Homer: And what if we’ve picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder!
Bart: (claps and waves his arms) Testify!

Outside of the obvious heresy of gambling with God, it doesn’t take long to see that Pascal’s Wager is an argumentum ad consequentiam (or appeal to consequences) fallacy. Pascal was indifferent to the truth in his religion, he only cared about its eternal risks and rewards. Obviously, Pascal’s Wager is more scheme than pyramid.

Kierkegaard’s existential leap of faith

Perhaps less seedy than Pascal’s Wager but no less absurd is Søren Kierkegaard’s existential leap of faith. Kierkegaard reasoned that because religion is a realm in which reason can’t successfully operate that we must rely on faith to make decisions about the supernatural. Many religious scientists make this claim as well. The problem for Kierkegaard and those scientists is that matters of faith aren’t true/false questions—they’re multiple choice.

Let’s run with Kierkegaard for a moment. Suppose I agree to make a leap of faith and believe in God. But which God? Yahweh? Allah? Brahma? I think Richard Dawkins said it best when he wrote:

Today, everyone takes it for granted that we are all atheists with respect to Thor and Wotan, Zeus and Poseidon, Mithras and Ammon Ra.

Although we might find it crazy now, at one point in history people had faith that these gods were real. Apparently, all of us apply truth tests of one sort or another when choosing a God to worship or not to worship, so faith is insufficient reason to believe anything, and humans have never really exempted supernatural ideas from scrutiny. Using faith as a foundation will cause your pyramid of reason to collapse.

Anselm’s ontological argument

Finally, there’s the ontological argument. It’s essentially a trick of semantics suggesting that because we can understand the idea of God that God must exist. According to St. Anselm:

Therefore, if that than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone, the very being than which nothing greater can be conceived is one than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence there is no doubt that there exists a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

This, I grant you, is heady stuff. Yet I believe the ontological argument is an argumentum ad logicam (or “argument from fallacy”) fallacy. Because St. Anselm began by equivocating actuality with possibility (a fallacy unto itself), he jumped to a conclusion that wasn’t really there. Indeed, Immanuel Kant pointed out the primary equivocation behind Anselm’s argument:

There is already a contradiction in introducing the concept of existence—no matter under what title it may be disguised—into the concept of a thing which we profess to be thinking solely in reference to its possibility.

Worse yet, I can imagine a supreme being who is morally superior to the one whom theists believe is actually pulling the strings in our universe. Surprisingly, although the ontological argument is an a priori assertion, it too fails to withstand the blows of evidence because it too is a pyramid scheme.

Conclusion

Why might religious people make these silly arguments? Do they believe that they are persuasive to others? Perhaps. The ontological argument certainly sounds smart. But, more likely, they believe that these arguments immunize their own from the criticisms of atheists like me. They are preaching to the choir, reassuring them that they’re smart too and that they’ve bet on the right horse. Honestly, I think religious apologists have taken a page from the world of marketing:

When consumers are involved in a brand purchase but perceive little brand differentiation or lack the ability to judge between competing brands, the advertising should reduce post-purchase dissonance through providing reassurance after the purchase.

Leslie de Chernatony and Malcolm McDonald, Creating Powerful Brands, 1998

So my advice is that we all hone our abilities to differentiate between the quality of different “brands” of religious and philosophical thought, lest we fall victim to a religious pyramid scheme ourselves. Sure, the commissions are great, but the long-term returns may be disappointing.