Tag Archives: philosophy

Would you like some eternal salvation with that?

This morning I was walking on the trail at a local park. I had my cell phone with me and my earphones in, absorbed in my music and the natural scene. During my walk, a runner came toward me on the opposite side of the trail. He said, “Here you go,” handed me a business card and kept running.

At least it looked like a business card. It was actually a gospel message about “the most important day of your life.” It apparently wasn’t my graduation day, my wedding day (which, admittedly was not my finest hour) or the day my children (who do not exist) were born. But instead it will be Judgment Day.

Of course, this sort of message is old hat to me as a former evangelical Christian. I am used to getting gospel tracts, knocks on the door, etc. But what struck me about this particular man was that he just handed me the card, said, “Here you go,” and left.

What if I wanted to talk to him about what was written on the card? What if I were hurting and needed help — or even prayer? What if I had deep philosophical questions about faith?

Nope. The only contact information was a website: Redeemed Scoundrels, and that tells me that I am, like everyone else, a bad person who deserves to be killed in a tsunami. I wish I were making this up, but you can see for yourself.

Apparently this fellow got it into his head that Jesus wanted him to spread the good news not by healing the sick, feeding the poor or even having real conversations with people but instead by doing guerilla marketing as if he were trying to create a buzz for a new smart phone model at a tech convention or hand out coupons for the latest sandwich at McDonald’s.

Of course, if you’ve read any of my other blog entries, you will know that I am incredulous toward all religions, but this kind capitalist Christianity — uniquely American, I might add — is particularly offensive to me. It insults the intelligence of the audience, and it reinforces the idea that these people care more about increasing their numbers than actually meeting people’s needs. It’s as if Jesus hired an advertising agency.

When asking, “What would Jesus do?” I hope the answer is not, “run by a stranger and hand them a gospel message printed on a business card.”

Finding a new meaning

It’s a great big universe
And we’re all really puny
We’re just tiny little specks
About the size of Mickey Rooney
— Animaniacs, Yakko’s Universe

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably played existential games with yourself before. I often wonder why it is that I am here.

This game is an simple one for religious people to play and win — they are here because God put them here and gave them a unique purpose. (The Westminster Shorter Catechism reads, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”) Furthermore, these people often look forward to some sort of afterlife that they will enjoy but that is not afforded to everyone. They feel a sense of privilege at that.

Some people find meaning in their children…they have a biological drive to love their children and ensure (to the best of their ability) that these children are healthy and successful. I am a son after all, and my parents have expressed their desires about this to me. I realize that not all parents actually have this motivation, and their children often end up as damaged adults. I have met adults like this throughout my life, and I sympathize with them for the difficult road they have traveled.

In my case, I don’t really believe in God and I don’t have any children. And, contrary to what some have suggested, I don’t see the answer as merely changing course on either of these issues. These are important choices I have made for how I wish to live my life, and I hope people will respect that. Some do, some don’t.

So what is left for me to find meaning in? I have always measured myself based on what I have accomplished and contributed to the world in this life. Unfortunately, my level of accomplishment has not reached anything near the heights that I would have hoped. I wanted to be Superman, but I’m not even Clark Kent yet. As I approach yet another birthday, I cannot help but be reminded about how short I have fallen of my goals.

I am told by some expert people that this line of thinking is a trap. I am inclined to believe them since it does not lead to positive feelings. My fulfillment is contingent on measurable external factors, and when I don’t measure up, I cease to be fulfilled.

So it’s time to carve out a new path. I’m not sure what that even looks like. I know it does not look like the paths that most other people have charted. It’s about the relationships that I have with people. It’s about doing good in small ways. It’s about living the best life I can each day, not where I fall on some 10-year plan.

This is not an easy path to take. It requires intense focus. It requires a commitment not to think too far out in front of my headlights. It’s about living life in the present. We’ll see how it works.

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.

What do near-death experiences tell us about the afterlife?

I’m sure you’ve heard stories before from people who have nearly died and then been revived (at least on television or in a book). There’s usually some story about seeing a white light and perhaps the disembodied soul of a lost loved one.

But stop right there. So the person isn’t really dead…just nearly dead. And yet he or she has at least a glimpse of the world beyond. But what does that say about God? That He lit up the all Welcome to Heaven signs before the sun went down? That He didn’t realize it was a false alarm? I can just see the billboards now:

So you saw the white light even though you weren’t really dead? Oops. My bad. That was supposed to be a surprise.

God

Is God the father a good parent?

From time to time I ask religious people some form of the following question:

“Why doesn’t God just give me everything I want?”

The answer is usually something akin to, “That wouldn’t be good parenting. It’s not good for a parent — even a parent with substantial means — to satisfy a child’s every desire.”

But why isn’t that good? Well, because the child would not learn what the real world is like. Or it’s not fair because a child should earn his or her own way in life instead of relying on some sort of inheritance. And I actually agree.

However, here’s the problem with applying that logic to God: God is (allegedly) the omnipotent creator of that real world. His power and resources are not only substantial…they are unlimited. So that means He could not only give me everything I want but give everybody else everything they wanted too. It would actually be fair since everybody else got what they wanted too.

In fact, if He existed, God could make “the real world” whatever He wanted it to be. He would have the ability to satisfy every selfish, materialistic desire AND every deep, existential need at the same time without so much as batting a metaphysical eyelash. That’s the great thing about omnipotence. You can give and give and give and give without any downside at all. You don’t have to make the best decision “on balance;” you can choose “no pain, all gain” if you want to.

And yet is that the reality you observe? Certainly not. Money runs short. Innocent animals feel pain (sometimes because they are being eaten by other animals which may or may not be innocent). Relationships fail. Famines and natural disasters occur.

Loved ones die…sometimes at young ages in very painful ways. Let me share a story about just how senseless and unjust all of this can be.

My mother has been teaching public elementary school for decades. When I was in middle school, she had a student in her first grade class who already had the deck stacked against her. She had lost both her parents to addiction. Her mother drank while pregnant, leaving the child with fetal alcohol syndrome. The girl had some sort of disorder (I’m thinking immune) that required her to get stuck with a needle every night at 8 pm. No sleepovers, no parties, no nothing because she had to be home at 8 pm for that shot. She was in and out of Riley Hospital for Children for her entire life. And yet she was a remarkably happy girl.

My mom wanted to adopt her, but her custodial grandparents would not allow her to. So she did as much as she could, acting like a “Big Sister” to this girl. I’m an only child, but she was the closest thing I ever had to a sibling. She came over to our house a lot, and I tried to be the best big brother I could considering the lack of a genetic connection.

When this girl got into high school, she was diagnosed with cancer. Her dirt-poor family had to move from Indiana to Michigan to get her specialized treatment. She lost all her hair, and her face swelled up. She was 16 going on 86. I visited her, and it made me feel ill to see her like that.

And then, after a lifetime of painful treatments that left her disfigured and bedridden, she died at age 17.

My point is not that I have lost more than anyone else. I have undoubtedly lost less, and I have certainly experienced a lot of joys in life. My mother lost her father when she was 10. My wife lost her father when she was 12, and her 15-year-old cousin was brutally raped and murdered not long after. A Christian that I talk to online gave birth only to lose her son six weeks later.

Is there any sense to any of this? If God is really in control, what would possess Him to let this happen? It’s not like He would be violating anyone’s free will by letting me meet my grandfather or letting my Christian friend watch her son grow up.

I didn’t have a lot of material things when I was growing up. I never had the coolest shoes, and I wore hand-me-down clothes. We always had enough to eat and a roof over our heads, but there weren’t a lot of luxuries. I’m certainly not upset with my parents for this…they did the best they could with their limited incomes. I have two very good parents, and I’m grateful for that.

But I would be very upset about the hand-me-downs if I found out that my dad had a few billion dollars stashed away. And if God just keeps His omnipotence stashed away when He could solve all of our problems, doesn’t that make God a bad parent?

I’m not saying I actually think there’s a malevolent God up there who doesn’t love us. I’m saying that this analogy of God being a good, strict parent is preposterous when He could give us everything we want. So I’m forced to conclude that this omnipotent, loving God does not exist.

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.