Not All Opinions Are Equal

You’ve likely encountered this scenario: You’re in a debate with someone, either on-line or in person.  You are discussing a topic of which you and the other party disagree.  You’ve laid out your case, presenting sound and difficult to refute evidence, yet the other person persists that they are right and you are wrong.  The other person ends the conversation in frustration by boldly proclaiming, “I have a right to my opinion!”

Sound familiar?  Most of us have probably been in this situation and walked away shaking our heads at the seemingly ignorant responses.  Some of us have likely used that very same line as a way of dodging any further discussion.  Because that’s what remarks like “I have a right to my opinion!” are: a close-ended statement meant to shut down the conversation and get the last word in.  More on this later.  First, let’s start with some definitions.

“Opinion” is defined as, “a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty; a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.”  This is a very different concept than the concept of facts, yet it’s surprising how many people consider their own opinions iron-clad.  Opinions can range from tastes or preferences, to views about  politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.  However, there is a very big difference between subjective claims, such as tastes in music, art, sports teams, etc., and objective claims; those which carry the weight of empirical evidence.

Professor of Philosophy Patrick Stokes tells his students when they enter his class: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”  He goes on to explain: “The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.”

The digital revolution has done much to connect the world, yet it has also done much to divide it as well.  No longer are Americans merely holding opinions different from one another; they’re also holding differentfacts.  For example, arguments are no longer about what we should be doing about climate change, but whether or not climate change is actually happening.  People are now fighting over competing versions of reality.  And now more then ever, it is becoming convenient for some people to live in a world built out of their own facts.  Stephen Colbert has coined this alternate reality as “truthiness” – something feeling true without any evidence suggesting it actually is.  

This “feeling” of being right has led to this ingrained idea in much of the populous that their views, beliefs, and opinions should be given equal standing in public discourse.  To be clear, no one is suggesting that people cannot hold differing opinions or even speaking them publicly.  What I (and Stokes) am saying is that if “entitled to an opinion” means “entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth”, then it’s clearly false.

“We don’t respect people’s beliefs, we evaluate their reasons.” – Sam Harris

All too often, when one sees a debate, it is between only two individuals on opposite ends of the issue.  This can give the illusion that both sides of the argument carry equal weight.  This, however, is not always the case.  When it comes to many issues, including climate change, vaccines, or Evolution vs Creationism, there isn’t equal weight on both sides.  There is overwhelming consensus, and then there is the fringe science-denier who feels that the evidence conflicts with their own personal views.  This false equivalence was perfectly explained and demonstrated on an episode of Last Week Tonight dealing with the “controversy” surrounding climate change:

Best line of the video:

Who gives a shit? You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: “Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?” or “Do owls exist?” or “Are there hats?”

People’s misconceptions about their own opinions are very often the result of what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effectthe unshakable illusion that you’re much smarter, and more skilled and/or knowledgeable, than you really are.  Far too many people labor under the illusion that their knowledge about things is at least as good as, if not better than, the actual facts. For these people, their knowledge isn’t just superior – it’s superior even to those who have an intimate and detailed knowledge of the subject at hand.  To put it simply – it’s possible to be too dumb to realize you’re dumb.

While everyone is susceptible to having an over-inflated view of their own intelligence, you can see the Dunning-Kruger effect most prevalent in conspiracy theorists, radical political groups, fundamentalist religions, and science-deniers.  Donald Trump supporters are also an excellent example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.  David Dunning himself wrote an excellent op-ed about this phenomenon in Trump supporters and even Trump himself:

“Trump has served up numerous illustrative examples of the effect as he continues his confident audition to be leader of the free world, even as he seems to lack crucial information about the job.”  

“In voters, lack of expertise would be lamentable, but perhaps not so worrisome, if people had some sense of how imperfect their civic knowledge is. If they did, they could repair it. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests something different. It suggests that some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps… Again, the key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that unknowledgeable voters are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories, that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship, perhaps some that make them nod in agreement with Trump at his rallies.”  


So what are we do do about this.  Is it possible to have informed opinions without being an expert on the subject(s)?  Yes it is.  But it takes some careful thought, time doing research, an awareness of our own biases and limitations, and a willingness to consider we could be wrong.

Science blogger Fallacy Man came up with a good rule of thumb that is helpful to remember when discussing empirical claims, particularly those made by science – you don’t need to be an expert to accept a consensus, but you do need to be an expert to reject one. In other words, your default position should always be the one held by the majority of experts in that field, especially if it is a very large majority. To be clear, it is always possible that the consensus is wrong. I’m not advocating that you view a consensus as irrefutable proof of a position. Rather, what I am arguing is that you, as a non-expert, should be very, very cautious about claiming that the majority of experts are wrong. To put this another way, how likely do you actually think it is that you figured out something that the majority of experts missed?”  

You don’t need to be a climatologist to accept climate-change, but you do if you’re going to claim it’s a myth.  You don’t need to have a Ph.D in biology to accept evolution, but if you’re going to claim that it’s not true, you better have some serious credentials and evidence to back it up (you listening Ken Ham?).

This really shouldn’t be a difficult concept for people to grasp.  We rely on experts all the time in our day-to-day life, yet somehow there are those who think they know better than scientists and experts when it comes to topics they don’t agree with.  As Fallacy Man puts it, “If we go to several doctors with a problem and all or most of them tell us the same thing, we usually have no trouble accepting their diagnosis, because they’re experts. We defer to expert lawyers, contractors, mechanics, etc. all the time, but for some strange reason, when it comes to science, people suddenly feel empowered to reject the expert consensus and side with some internet quackery instead. This is a very dangerous thing to do. On topics like global climate change where roughly 97% of expert climatologists agree that we are causing it, it seems rather risky to side with the 3% who disagree with the consensus.”  

It never ceases to amaze me how scientifically illiterate people can honestly believe that their opinions carry more weight than that of educated, experienced, professional scientists.  Case in your point:

A few months ago I posted a link to an interview with Lawrence Krauss talking about how the universe can, in fact, come from “nothing” and that no supernatural agency was necessary.  One persons reply was, “Just another viewpoint”.  The implication being, of course, that this person doesn’t agree with Krauss’s position, and her position is equally valid.

No, it’s not.

Said person has no formal, or even informal, training or education in any scientific field.  Krauss, on the other hand, is a renowned theoretical physicist with over 300 scientific publications under his belt.  Her opinion is not equal to his on this subject; not even close.  Ironically enough, Krauss is asked about science being a matter of opinion in this interview:

Nogueira: Do you think there is a misconception that science is a matter of opinion and that we should hear all sides of the story?

Krauss: Yes. As I often like to say, a great thing about science is that one side is usually wrong. There are open questions where there is uncertainty and debate. However, the resolution of these debates is not rhetoric or volume but rather nature. So, if you have an idea that simply disagrees with observation, then you throw it out; there is no discussion. There is no need to debate the question of whether Earth is round or whether it’s flat. There are still people who claim Earth is flat, but they are just simply wrong. Similarly, there are some people who don’t think evolution happens, but they are wrong. And those people who argue against human-induced climate change are also simply wrong.

None of this is to say that you can’t be skeptical about the general consensus or empirical claims.  You should always make every effort to learn as much about a topic as you can, but after you have carefully reviewed all of the evidence, if you have reached a different conclusion than the vast majority of credentialed experts, you should be very trepid and cautious about that conclusion.

Thanks for reading.


Mythbusters: The Uniqueness of Jesus

In the first century CE, there was a man born in a remote part of the Roman empire, who’s life would later be described by his followers as “miraculous”.

Before he was born, his mother had a visitor from heaven tell her that her son would be no mere mortal, but in fact divine.  His birth was accompanied by unusual sign in the heavens.

As an adult he left home to begin his preaching ministry.  He went from village to town, telling all who would listen that the should not be concerned about their earthly lives and their material goods; they should live for what was spiritual and eternal.  He preached to both the common peasants and the elite.

He gathered a number of followers around him who became convinced that he was no ordinary human, but was the Son of God.  He did many miracles that confirmed their beliefs: healing the sick, casting out demons, raising people from the dead.

All was not well however, as he aroused opposition from the ruling class of Rome and was eventually put on trial.  He was accused of receiving the worship that is due only to God.  He was sentenced to death.

They may have killed his earthly body, but they could not kill his soul!  He ascended into heaven where he lives to this day.  But to prove that he lived, he appeared to one of his followers doubting followers.  This followers later wrote books about him which we can still read today.

The man’s name was Apollonius.

He was a polytheist and a renowned philosopher who came from the town of Tyana.  His followers thought that he was divine and immortal and worshiped him long after his death.  What is know about him comes from the works of his devotee Philostratus.  Philostratus’s book was written in eight volumes in the third century.  He had done considerable research for his book, and his stories were largely based on the accounts of eyewitnesses and companions of Appollonius himself.*

If this all sounds strikingly similar to the account of Jesus, there’s a very good reason for that.

Myths are stories that are based on tradition.  Some may have factual origins, while others are completely fictional.  But myths are more than mere stories and they serve a more profound purpose in ancient and modern cultures.  A myth taps into a universal cultural narrative, the collective wisdom of man.  An excellent illustration of the universality of these themes is that so many peoples who have had no contact with each other create myths that are remarkably similar.  So, for example, cultures worldwide, from the Middle East to the distant mountains of South America have myths about great floods, virgin births, creation, paradise, the underworld, the afterlife, etc.  These commonalities are known as archetypes – universally symbolic patterns.  True to their universal nature, archetypal characters and stories appear again and again in myths across many diverse cultures.

The account of Jesus as described in the Gospels is one such story.   As we’ll see , the myth of Jesus follows a very old and familiar literary pattern familiar to nearly all hero legends. “We should not think of Jesus as unique”, states New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, “if by that term we mean that he was the only one ‘like that’ – that is, a human who was far above and very different from the rest of us mere mortals, a man who was also in some sense divine.  There were numerous divine humans in antiquity.”

The similarities between Jesus and Apollonius are striking, but they are far from unique; there were many stories that followed this archetype in the ancient world.  This is because they both follow what is often referred to as the “Hero’s Journey”– the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.  Also referred to as monomyth, examples of this can be found throughout the history of literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  

A more specific version of hero’s archetypes is the Rank-Raglan mythotype which are narrative patterns that lists different cross-cultural traits often found in the accounts of heroes, including mythical heroes.  Raglan developed a 22-point myth-ritualist Hero archetype to account for common patterns across Indo-European cultures for Hero traditions.  These points are:

  1. Mother is a royal virgin
  2. Father is a king
  3. Father often a near relative to mother
  4. Unusual conception
  5. Hero reputed to be son of god
  6. Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather
  7. Hero spirited away as a child
  8. Reared by foster parents in a far country
  9. No details of childhood
  10. Returns or goes to future kingdom
  11. Is victor over king, giant, dragon or wild beast
  12. Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor)
  13. Becomes king
  14. For a time he reigns uneventfully
  15. He prescribes laws
  16. Later loses favor with gods or his subjects
  17. Driven from throne and city
  18. Meets with mysterious death
  19. Often at the top of a hill
  20. His children, if any, do not succeed him
  21. His body is not buried
  22. Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs

A Hero’s tradition is considered more mythical the more of these traits they hold.  Popular characters who make the cut include Romulus, Heracles, Dionysos, Apollo, Zeus, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Alexander the Great.  How many points does Jesus get?

One can clearly see that the story of Jesus follows the Hero’s tradition.  Is this merely a coincidence?  The number of points the Jesus story gets and the close resemblance to other deities makes it a tough point to argue.

One popular internet meme would have us believe that Christianity is superior because of the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

Those who share this meme should spend a little more time studying the history of religion and ancient mythology.  Gods rising from the dead was commonplace in ancient cultures and examples are plentiful:

Attis –  born of a virgin by unusual means, gruesome death, death involved a tree, resurrected/eternal life, celebrated annually in spring season

Adonis – born of royal blood, unusual conception and birth, gruesome death, resurrected/ascended to heaven/eternal life, celebrated annually in spring season

Osiris – son of royalty, became king, taught his people a new way of living, traveled to teach others, was murdered by someone close to him, resurrected, became a god

Dionysus – born from a union between a god (Zeus) and a human (Semele), traveled to spread his message, had disciples, brought people back from the dead, gruesome death (dismemberment), brought back to life, celebrated in spring

Tammuz – parents were divine, had power over nature, foreshadowing of death, descended into the other world but was brought back to life, celebrated in the spring

All of these example proceeded the life of Jesus, some by thousands of years.  You’ll notice some other similarities that I included as well, again, examples of the hero mythology archetype.

Speaking of rising from the dead, some have tried to argue that Jesus’s resurrection is proof of his divinity.  Yet, according to the Bible people being brought back to life, while considered a miracle, was not unusual.  Elijah and Elisha both raised people from the dead.  In fact, Elisha’s powers continued after death as someone was even resurrected simply by touching his bones.  Jesus raised Lazarus, the daughter of Jairus, and the son of the widow on Nain.  Peter raised Dorcus and Eutychus was raised from the dead by Paul.  In a scene straight out of a zombie movie, we hear of whole cemeteries opening up and saints wandering the streets after the crucifixion (Matt. 27:50-53).  Are we to consider all of these people divine as well?

Interesting similarities can also be found between Jesus and Buddha, who pre-dates Jesus by 400-500 years.  Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was:

  • Born to a royal family
  • Birth foretold in dream
  • Visited by “wise men” shortly after birth
  • Prolonged fasting before starting ministry
  • Renounced worldly riches and required his disciples to do so also
  • Taught that true riches are not material
  • Extensive traveling to spread his message
  • Had disciples who traveled with him
  • Performed miracles, such as curing blindness and walking on water
  • Dispatched disciples, shortly before his death, to spread his message

Some have claimed that what set Jesus apart were his teachings, yet while Jesus’s message was certainly counter-cultural, it was nothing original.  As with Apollonius, Buddha taught many of the same principles that we find in the Gospels.  Here are a few examples:

The Golden Rule

“Consider others as yourself.” (Dhammapada 10:1)
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)

Love others

Let your thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world.” (Sutta Nipata 149-150)
“This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

Love your enemies

Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good. Overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth. (Dhammapada 1.5 &17.3)
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6.27-30)

Turn the other cheek

“If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon any desires and utter no evil words.” (Majjhima Nikaya 21:6)
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” (Luke 6:29

Help others

“If you do not tend to one another, then who is there to tend you? Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick.” (Vinaya, Mahavagga 8:26.3)
“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:45)

Do not judge others

“The fault of others is easily perceived, but that of oneself is difficult to perceive; a man winnows his neighbour’s faults like chaff, but his own fault he hides.” (Dhammapada 252.)
“Judge not, that you be not judged… And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1–5)

Disdain wealth

“Let us live most happily, possessing nothing.” (Dhammapada 15:4)
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)

Do not kill

“Abandoning the taking of life, the ascetic Gautama dwells refraining from taking life, without stick or sword.” Digha Nikaya 1:1.8)
“Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Spread the word

“Teach the dharma which is lovely at the beginning, lovely in the middle, lovely at the end. Explain with the spirit and the letter in the fashion of Brahma. In this way you will be completely fulfilled and wholly pure.” (Vinaya Mahavagga 1:11.1)
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Does mean that the writers of the Gospels simply copied the story of Buddha?  Trade routes between India and Middle East were well established at that time and goods, as well as ideas, certainly traveled back and forth between them.  While it is certainly possible that the Gospel writers knew of Buddhism, it’s doubtful they simply retold the Buddha myth to match that of Jesus.  I bring up the similarities to once again illustrate how common the Hero archetype was and how influential it was on religious mythology of the time.

While some have argued that Jesus was not an actual historical figure, the majority of scholars and historians would believe that he was.  However, while these scholars would agree that a religious leader named Jesus likely existed, the stories surrounding him are most certainly the product legend and mythology; a story retold over time to fit the hero’s narrative. 

This poses a problem for Christianity, as it depends on the mythology of Jesus.  Without the immaculate conception, miracles, death and resurrection, Jesus is just another ancient religious figure.  As Bob Seidensticker explains: “Strip away any supernatural claims from the story of Alexander the Great, and you’ve still got cities throughout Asia named Alexandria and coins with Alexander’s likeness. Strip away any supernatural claims from the Caesar Augustus story, and you’re still left with the Caesar Augustus from history (and a month in our calendar named after him). But strip away the supernatural claims from the Jesus story, and you’re left with a fairly ordinary rabbi. The Jesus story is nothing but the supernatural elements.”  This is why it is not hard to find apologist desperately attempting to explain away evidence like what I have presented and insisting the Jesus was more than just a teacher/philosopher, but in fact was God, and has to be God.

So, where does all of this leave us?  For me, understanding the true nature of the Jesus story, it’s origins, and how similar it was to other narratives, was part of what led to my de-conversion.  It is yet further evidence that Christianity is a man-made religion, following a similar pattern of mythology, allegory, and legend-making that can be found in all religions.  Christianity is not unique, it is not special, and it certainly isn’t the one true religion as most of its followers would like to believe.

I do, however, admire the central teachings of Jesus and wish more people, specifically his devotes, would actually follow them as it would make the world a much better place.  The practice of treating others as equals, helping others, being slow to anger and judgment, and avoiding materialism, are principles which everyone should embrace.  Whether these principles are coming from Jesus, Buddha, Gandi, MLK, or a host of others; they are universal in nature and lead to a more civil, progressive, and humane society.  It’s when these principles are replaced by religious dogma that we see social progress slow down or even move backwards.  It’s time that the myth of Jesus be put in it’s rightful place so that we, as a society, can move forward.

Thanks for reading.


*The story of Appolonius was taken from Bert Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God”

**Some apologists have argued that the claims regarding ancient figures such as Adonis and Dionysus can’t be proven to be historically accurate.  It can’t be proven that Jesus was born on Dec 25th either, yet his followers universally celebrate that date.  The same holds true for the gods the preceded Jesus – little may be known about their actual existence (if they had one), but we can make certain claims regarding what their followers believed and how they worshiped.  






If You Believe In Hell…

In my previous post, I gave an overview of Kersey Grave’s The Biography of Satan which discussed the origins of the myth of the Devil and Hell.  The last chapter of the book is titled, “One Hundred and Sixty-Three Questions for Believers in Post Mortem Punishment”.  The purpose of these questions, he states at the end is, “simply to present the absurdities of the doctrine of future endless punishment in its true and strongest light”.

I’m not going to list all of them here.  Some of the questions are repetitive, some are rather weak arguments, and some are just plain silly.  Graves, does however, ask some pertinent questions that I feel anyone who believes in Hell as a real place and Satan as a real entity, need to think about.  I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing and changing the language where I felt it was necessary.

So, if you believe in Hell, you must ask yourself:

  • If the Devil is able to read your thoughts, see your every move, and be everywhere and anywhere, and has power over the earth and all its inhabitants, doesn’t it then follow that he also is an omnipotent, omnipresent and Almighty Being?  
  • If God was the first Omnipresent Being and filled all space, by what process was room found for another omnipresent being?
  • How is it that there are two infinite, almighty, and omnipotent beings holding at the same time the reins of the universal government?
  • If Satan is not omnipotent, how does he manage to “decoy millions of souls to endless ruin” when “God wills that all should be saved?”
  • Why does God allow the Devil to exist if he hates evil and possesses the power to destroy him?
  • If the Devil is a “fallen angel” as the Bible teaches, who tempted him and caused him to fall as there was yet no “Wicked One” to deceive him?
  • Did God foresee that Satan would rebel?  If not, doesn’t that contradict God being All Wise and All Knowing?
  • How could this primarily perfect archangel fall in a place that is itself perfect; Heaven?
  • When was Hell first created?
  • Since we learn that God has decreed that the wicked shall be punished in Hell and the Devil is his agent in performing this work, isn’t it reasonable to assume that Satan is actually a faithful servant of the Lord, and a co-worker with Him?
  • If punishment is the Devil’s work exclusively, yet God permits him to exist and carry out this work, then is he not acting in conformity with God’s will, and hence performing his duty?
  • Does it not follow then that it is God, and not the Devil, who punishes the wicked, and the later is simply the agent?
  • If God opposes Hell, then why doesn’t He have the powers to shut it down?
  • How is it that Satan is able to win over so many more souls than God?
  • The Bible says the wicked shall be punished forever, yet Satan will be overthrown in the Last Days.  Who will be running Hell and dealing out punishment?
  • How is it possible for a soul (an immaterial substance) to be consumer by fire (a material thing)?
  • Doesn’t it make God a thousand times worse and more fiendish than the wickedest of His creatures that he would punish someone for eternity in such a terrible way?
  • Can we honestly consider God to be just and merciful for punishing his creation for all eternity?
  • Would there be any sense in punishing a being for any other purpose than to reform him, or make an example for others?  Isn’t it impossible for postmortem punishment to serve either of these ends?
  • Could a just God punish one of his creatures for acting out the impulses of that nature which He himself endowed all humans with? 
  • If an all-knowing God saw that the majority of humanity would reject Him and prove such a failure, why not simply hit the “reset” button on the whole thing and start over?  Why did He allow humanity to continue?  Isn’t it cruel to bring humanity into existence and continue to allow suffering not only in this world, but the next?
  • If a parent with a disease willingly brought children into this world knowing that most of them would die an agonizing death, wouldn’t we find him to be immoral and cruel?
  • Isn’t it strange that and almighty and omnipotent God who “wills that all men should be saved”, could not come up with a better plan for ensuring that they would be saved”
  • How can God punish any soul eternally when it says in the Bible that For no one is cast off by the Lord forever? (Lam 3:31) 
  • Can there be any real sense of justice, when all men are punished equally, considering the vast nature of crimes in this world?
  • Are we not warranted in concluding that it would be morally impossible for a God of justice to inflict infinite punishment upon a mere finite being for any crime whatsoever, as it would be impossible for eternal consequences to grow out of any finite action, either good or bad, without overthrowing the last principle of moral equity and common justice, and even common sense?
  • Doesn’t it make God egregiously inconsistent that he commands us to “love our enemies” yet he punishes his for all eternity, especially seeing as how he has “the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself”? (Phil 3:21)
  • How can Jesus really be the “Savior of all man” when the vast majority are “lost”?
  • Can a man be considered truly moral if his only motivation for doing good is fear of Hell?
  • Can a man be said to have “free will” if he is chased into Heaven as a refugee from the Devil?
  • Could we then conclude that Christianity really needs two omnipotent powers to be saved – the all-loving Father to coax his children towards him and the Devil to be in hot pursuit, nipping at their heals?
  • Has not the practice of believing in a God that damns a portion of the human race, had the evil effect of also causing men to damn each other, leading to centuries of atrocities carried out in the name of Christianity? 

Thanks for reading.

Take Aways – The Biography of Satan

Every good story requires an antagonist – a character(s) that represents the opposition against which the protagonist must contend or an obstacle that the protagonist must overcome.  In the stories that make up the Judeo-Christian religions, the ultimate antagonist is Satan, also commonly known as the Devil.

I’ve talked before about the origins of the God myth and how the god(s) of the monotheistic religions came about from earlier religions and those that were active around the time of Judaism’s birth.  In Kersey Graves The  Biography of Satan, we explore the origins of Yahweh’s great antagonist, the Devil, and how he became so deep-seated in Christian dogma.  And, of course, no good story about Satan would be complete without his foreboding lair – Hell.

This book was originally published in 1865, with the 4th edition coming out in 1924.  I can only imagine the stir this book would have caused back then.  As the forward in the edition I read states, “This book goes straight to the root of the stories, Biblical and otherwise, to expose the origins of the Devil.  You may not like what you read, but after reading it it becomes difficult, in many places, to argue against Graves’ thesis.  And that thesis is that the Devil is nothing more than a fabricated ‘bad guy’ created by the early Christians priesthood to keep people in line.”

Graves starts by pointing out that it was God, not the Devil, who was originally thought to be the primary author of evil.  As he states in the beginning of chapter five, “The earliest ancestors of the Jewish race recognized God as being the author of evil by virtue of being the source of everything… God could not be the author of all things without being the author of evil.”  Examples of this can be found throughout the Old Testament:

  • In Isaiah 45:7, “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things.”  
  • Also in Amos, “Does evil happen to a city, and Yahweh hasn’t done it?” (3:6).
  • After loosing his health, Job replies to his wife, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10)
  • Proverbs (16:4) declares that, “The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.”  
  • Rather than Satan being the “great deceiver” we see Jehovah being responsible for lies: “I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” (1 Kings 22:22)
  • Jeremiah accuses God of lying to him, “Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?”(15:18).

Graves takes note that modern concepts of Heaven and Hell were not part of early Judaism, “The doctrine of future rewards and punishments constituted no part of the ancient Jewish creed, simply because, as we would naturally infer, all human actions, both good and bad, were regarded as proceeding from their God, Jehovah, or as being ‘inspired by the great Breath’, as they express it (in the Talmud).”

Jewish beliefs about God had much to do with their views of the natural world and the changing of the seasons, as well as natural disasters – “For a long period the attention of mankind seems to have been wholly directed to the phenomena of the physical external world, and for a long time they rested in the opinion that the same being, the same God who had created, also destroyed – the same being who sent down the genial solar rays of vernal spring, also sent down the chilling, desolating blasts of winter; the same God who poured down the genial, gentle showers to revive the drooping flowers, the withered grass, and the parched up dying cereals, also darted forth the forked lightning and blasting thunderbolt.”

Throughout the book, Graves demonstrates that most of what ancient Jews and early Christians thought of the Devil/Hell was borrowed from surrounding cultures. (This is hardly surprising, as very little of the Biblical narrative is truly original; comprised almost entirely of a patchwork of common myths and traditions from the surrounding areas)  One such example is the story of the woman being pursued by the Dragon (Satan) in the Book of Revelation.  This story relates to the celestial calendar, and versions of it can be found in Persian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indian, and even Native American cultures.

The “lake of fire” mentioned in Revelation is also borrowed from Egyptian mythology.  This “lake” is a reference to an actual lake, Serbonis, in Egypt.  When the Nile overflowed its banks, it would reach lake Serbonis and submerge it with putrid water.  As the water receded, it left a great amounts of debris and putrefied vegetation and animals – “Upon its stagnant waters, there accumulated a scum bearing a strong analogy in taste, color and smell to that of brimstone or sulfur. […] Travelers and historians tell us that when the sun shone upon this brilliant mirror-like floating substance, it presented the appearance of being on fire, and from that circumstance was called ‘the lake of fire and brimstone,’ while the gas, steam, vapor, and miasma… formed the imaginary smoke of the imaginary place of endless torment…”  

Also in Egypt, we get the source for the “worm that dieth not” mentioned in Mark 9:44.  As Grave explains, it “started from the circumstances of a gnawing, stinging worm which infest that country, being never known to die, simply because, as later researches show, it burrows down into the soil before it dies; hence not being seen after its death, it was supposed to be immortal.”

The story of Satan being thrown out of Heaven after an epic battle with Michael and his angles (Rev 12:7-9) is certainly not original.  Graves notes that, “There is scarcely an Oriental nation whose religion [doesn’t have] the story of a celestial battle or ‘war in Heaven’ similar to that referred to in the above text.”  Examples include:

  • In Roman legend, Titan rebelling against Jupiter and being cast out of heaven and imprisoned under mountains.
  • The battle of the Titans (children of Heaven) against the gods of Olympus in the other world is found in the mythology of ancient Greece.
  • Egyptian tradition tells of Typhon (the Devil) rebelling and making war against Osyrus.
  • The Chinese relate a battle between the inhabitants of the cloud and stars, The Lamb leads the starry hosts and conquered.
  • The Persians have one of the oldest such stories and tells of a war that broke out between the Summer God and the Winter God.  The Winter God was hurled out of paradise and became a fallen angel.

Chapter 12 is devoted to showing “that the conception of the Devil and a hell long existed before the remotest idea was entertained that either had anything to do with or any connection with punishment in a future life.  Both had a fabled existence in the external world among the physical elements long before the Devil was made an agent of punishment, or Hell a place of punishment for the wicked after death in the imaginations of people.”  These ideas developed over time among early Christian leaders as a means of controlling the masses – “Mythological history is exuberant with the evidence that the traditional scheme of punishment for human beings or human souls in another world for actions committed in this world, was invented by the priesthood as one of their auxiliary means of promoting the interests of their craft.  And, according to Grecian writers, the agents of Government… joined with priests, and likewise adopted the system as a more effectual manner of controlling the populace, and keeping them in subjection to the government.  To state the thing in brief, priests and politicians ‘colleagued together’, and invented the Devil and his domicile, as scarecrows to frighten the ignorant superstitious masses into quiet, submissive allegiance to the ecclesiastical tribunals, namely the ‘powers that be’.”  This practice, unfortunately, continues to this day.

The last chapter of the book lists a series of questions that should be asked of anyone who takes the mythology of Satan/Hell as fact.  It’s an extensive list (163 questions!)and I don’t wish to list them all here.  However, I do think they make some good points and will list some of them in my next post.

It’s frustrating to me that such clear-cut fairytales, like that of Satan and Hell, are still taken as literal fact by millions of Christians.  You would have thought that these ideas would have died off after the Enlightenment, but they persist today because the Church needs them in order to survive.  Without their scary boogeyman, how are Christianity’s leaders going to keep the masses in line?  How are they going to persuade gullible “lost souls” to buy their product without threats of eternal punishment?  Who are they going to make their scapegoat whenever life doesn’t go their way?  The concept of Hell is one of the most illogical and barbaric doctrines of Christianity.  The sooner it is dismissed by believers and non-believers alike, the better off society will be.

In all fairness, I’m a little skeptical regarding Grave’s credentials. There’s little information about him and some of his other works have received criticism, even from fellow atheist.  Part of the problem is that Grave’s often omits important sources and evidence.  I’ll grant that the standards for these kinds of scholarly works was likely different in the 19th century compared to today.  Graves also tends to blend his opinion and the facts pretty fluidly, as well as stretching his conclusions beyond what the evidence shows.  This is not to say we should discredit all his work; just take it with a grain of salt.  I would like to see a contemporary scholar or historian, such as Bart Ehrman or Karen Armstrong, write a modern and more thoroughly researched book on the history of Satan.

In closing, I wanted to include a bit from the forward in which Graves explains why books like this are important, and why people like him, myself included, continue to speak out against toxic religion and the harmful myths they perpetuate:

Every step the race has taken in the direction of intellectual progress has been taken in defiance of religious authority; because the whole range of the scientific culture of our time regarding man and the universe is a challenge to, and is challenged by, the religious notions that have been handed down to us from the distant past. […] The mission of education, of modern science and historical criticism, is to win the world for enlightenment, and the goal will be reached eventually, in spite of the puerile preaching of priests and the fulminations of the Fundamentalists.

Mythbusters – Intelligently Designed Humans

One of the most common arguments for the existence of God, particularly from Creationist and Intelligent Design advocates, is the human body.  They will often cite Bible verses that claim humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and designed in God’s image.  We humans have a very long history of being full of ourselves and unfortunately religion has only reinforced this view.  Since Darwin’s breakthrough discoveries regarding human origins, science has come to understand homo sapiens real place in the natural world.  Despite geneticists proving through DNA that humans are in fact, evolved from other animal species, there are many who still want to believe that we came into existence just as we are and are the greatest of all creation.

Let’s suppose for a second that human were designed by an intelligent creator  and really are the greatest of all creation.  Shouldn’t this intelligent design be evident in our makeup and abilities?  Shouldn’t humans have a long, glorious history of being “king of the jungle”?  You would think so, but that’s not what we find at all.  Let’s look at some examples of design flaws in humans:

  • One of the things that sets apart humans from other mammals is our ability to walk upright, or be bi-pedal.  This frees up our hands to do others things like use tools.  With this advance came the increase in size of our craniums.  But with evolution, everything comes with a cost.  Our skeletons were developed over millions of years of walking on all fours and having relatively small heads.  The price paid for becoming bi-pedal and having larger craniums is having back problems, foot problems, and stiff necks.  Women paid extra.  An upright gait required narrower hips, thus constricting the birth canal.  This not only made childbirth painful, but also dangerous.  Prior to modern medicine, childbirth often lead to the death of the mother and/or child.
  • Speaking of children, human infants are some of the most helpless of the mammalian species.  Colts are able to run only hours after being born, and a kitten can forage for food on its own after only a few weeks.  Humans, on the other hand, are totally helpless and dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education.  This poses a problem for the mothers as well, as a lone mother can hardly forage enough food for their offspring and themselves with a needy child in tow.
  • Compared to other creatures, humans are relatively weak and marginal.  Despite having large brains and inventing the use of tools, humans still spent around 2 million years somewhere in the middle of the food chain.  Our sense of smell, eye sight, and hearing are no match to other mammals.  Our overall strength, speed, reflexes, and agility is also outmatched by hundreds of other species.  Humans lived in constant fear of predators, were always in danger of exposure from the elements, and had to forage for food daily just to survive.  This did not change until the Agricultural Revolution, which brought its own set of problems.
  • Of all the things that a human can die from, diseases accounted for more deaths then any other.  Every since the Agricultural Revolution when humans were forced to live in close proximity to animals and other humans, diseases have wiped out untold amounts of the human population.  Why do humans have such weak immune systems?  A wild vulture can eat anthrax and not be affected thanks to their strong stomach acids.  Cockroaches are well known for their survivability, even able to withstand nuclear radiation.  Yet humans can be taken down by a simple cold.
  • Some species of coral and sponges can live thousands of years.  Bowhead whales can live over 200 years. A lobster can live to be over 140 years old, as can a tortoise.  There are in fact, hundred of species of animals that live well past 100.   Yet humans life expectancy is roughly 80 if you live in a developed county, thanks to modern medicine.  At the turn of the 19th century, life expectancy in the US was only 46.  During the Bronze and Iron Age it was 26.
  • One of the unique features of some lizards is their ability to grow back their tails should they lose them.  This is a good escape technique, as a lost tail will continue to wiggle, which might distract the predator and give the lizard a chance to escape.  Most lizards will have regrown their tail within nine months.  Other spices of animals also posses this neat trick, know as regeneration.   The Mexican axolotl can regenerating a missing limb; tail; and parts of their brain, heart, and lower jaw.  If they’re paralyzed in the back they can recover the functions of their legs by making all new neurons and new connections.  Starfish also have the ability to regenerate their arms and sometimes their whole bodies.  Why aren’t humans able to grow back missing limbs?  It’s clearly not outside the realm of nature, yet no amount of medical treatment or prayer has ever brought back a missing limb.

The fact is, the only things that set homo sapiens apart from other animals is our cognitive capacity and our ability to cooperate in large numbers.  

If you want to believe that humans were designed by a God, you have to then explain why he did such a shitty job of it.  I’ve demonstrated just a handful of ways in which humans fail to be the pinnacle of creation despite the prevalence in nature of better designs.  If humans are the greatest of all creation, why not incorporate some of the amazing abilities found in other animals into humans to make a species that would experience far less suffering then humans have?  If humans are designed by a God, he needs to go back to the drawing board.

However, the design flaws in humans make perfect sense when viewed through the lens of evolution.  Natural selection provides a working model to how humans evolved and why.  Evolution is a give-and-take system; if an animal increases in efficiency in one area, it will decrease in another*.  Human’s large craniums gave us a larger brain which lead to our greatest asset – our cognitive abilities.  But powering that brain takes a tremendous amount of energy, which meant compromises had to be made.

The weaknesses found in our species has led to untold numbers of deaths and immeasurable suffering.  It’s time humans accept their place in the natural world.  It’s time we stop fooling ourselves into believing that we are somehow “special” and intelligently designed.  We are simply animals, or as Robert Ardrey wrote, “We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels”.

With this knowledge we can work towards caring for and sustaining nature so that we can preserve the world for future generations.  Humanity has risen to the top of the food chain, but with that comes the responsibility of making sure we don’t screw it all up.

Thanks for reading.


* For example, elephants have no natural predators they need to worry about thanks to their large size.  However their large size means they can only have one offspring at a time and they have a two-year gestation period.  In humans, our large craniums meant greater cognitive abilities, but it also meant more difficulty and potentially life-threatening births.



On Islam/Muslims

My last post regarding the Orlando shooting garnered a fair bit of negative feedback.  Not my most controversial post, but would probably make the Top 5.  One of the biggest push-backs that I received stemmed from the fact that I focused on Evangelicals, and said little about  Islam or Muslims.  Most of the comments were something to the effect of, “This was a Muslim problem!  Christians had nothing to do with it!”  I dealt with the second part of this claim in my post.  The first part of the claim is questionable.  There’s conflicting reports about how devout the shooter was to Islam, but it seems certain that he had no real ties to any terrorist organizations and was not well studied in Islamic texts and traditions.

But, since the topic came up, I thought I would briefly share my views on Islam, and why I don’t spend much time talking about it here or on social media in general.

First off, my view of Islam is the same as Christianity – they are both ancient , man-made religions, based on supernatural beliefs and a pre-science ignorance of the world.  Both have a dangerous and harmful devotion to their holy book, which they both consider “God’s Word”, and both religions have caused immeasurable harm throughout history and in the present day.  

Christianity doesn’t get a special pass, as much as the majority of it’s devoted followers think it should.  Most Christians will claim that their religion is the only TRUE RELIGION, the Bible is the one true WORD OF GOD, and Jesus is the ONE TRUE SAVIOR.  If you were to talk to ask a Muslim from the Middle East about Islam, they would say the exact same thing about Islam, the Koran, and the Prophet Muhammad.  What religion one belongs to is almost always a matter of geography and culture, not the validity of its truth-claims.  Neither one is in “better” or “truer” than the other.

Some like to argue that the more extreme factions of Islam, such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, are proof that it is a violent and “evil” religion.  They seem to forget Christianity’s long, dark history of bloodshed, including the Crusades, Inquisitions, and slavery.  Some are also unaware of the many modern day Christian terrorist organizations that, while not making the headlines, are nonetheless spreading fear and violence in many parts of the world.  Both the Koran and the Bible contain horrible acts of violence carried out in the name of God, and both are used to justify violence today.

My lack of writing on Islam is not because I think it is a better religion, nor is it because I’m trying to be politically correct.  I have a couple reasons for not covering Islam more:

First – I’ve never been a Muslim.  I grew up in a Christian home, surrounded by Christian friends and relatives, was home-schooled through elementary and middle school using a Christian curriculum, went to a Christian college and was a devout Evangelical for many years.  Christianity is what I know and what I feel the most  qualified to speak on.

I’ve read the Koran, as well as several books on Islam, its history, central tenets and practices.  I’ve also had hundreds of conversations with the Muslims that I work with.  While this certainly puts me ahead of the general population in terms of how much I understand Islam, it doesn’t make me qualified to speak on it with any kind of authority.

Second – at present, Islam is of no real threat to the American way of life (despite what the right-wing media would like you to believe).  Yes, there are the occasional terrorist attacks, but none of these have resulted in Muslims gaining any real power and influence in the US.

There are somewhere around 3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in the US, or about 1 percent of the total U.S. population.  They have no real power or influence in government or in society.  Most are content to just live in peace and go about their normal lives.

When it comes to democracy, conservative Christians are a far bigger threat than Islam, which is why I speak on it so frequently.  If or when I start seeing the same from Islam, I’ll be happy to include them into the conversation.  As of now, I have bigger fish to fry, as they say.  It’s not that I’m “picking on Christians” while ignoring Islam – I just see Christianity as a much more pressing issue right in our country.

Hopefully this helps clear some things up.  I may discuss Islam more in the future, but the main focus of this blog will always be Christianity.  Thanks for reading.




Evangelicals’ Reaction to Orlando: Too Little, Too Late

Like everyone else, I was shocked and appalled at what has become the largest mass shooting in recent US history.  A single gunman carrying an assault rifle opened fire in a crowded Orlando night club, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others.  The night club, Pulse, was known as one of the largest LGBT-friendly bars in the area, and all evidence points towards this being a hate crime against LGBTs.

As news spread about the incident, a public outpouring of sympathy came from across the globe.  People were desperate for answers, and when news came out that the shooter was an ISIS sympathizer, it was quickly labeled as an “act of terror” and dismissed by many as yet another sign of the growing problem of Islam in America.

Most shocking to me and many others was the outpouring of grief from Evangelical Christians.  Social media was filled with the same useless platitudes of “thoughts and prayers” being offered for the victims of Orlando.  (Some couldn’t even bring themselves to do that, so entranced in their homophobia, they instead prayed for the doctors of the Orlando hospitals instead.)  The same group of people who have been solely responsible for the horrible treatment of LGBTs in the US for the last several decades are now, of all times, suddenly shocked over the persecution of LGBTs.

Well, I have a few things to say about that.

Evangelicals have spent the last several decades doing everything in their power to marginalize and oppress LGBTs.

Christians spent millions opposing same-sex marriage.

In 2015, more than 115 anti-LGBT bills were introduced in at least 31 states.

This year has seen a wave of anti-trans “bathroom bills” sweeping across the country.

American Evangelicals initiated and spent millions of dollars trying to pass Uganda’s “Kill The Gays” bill that would have made homosexuality punishable by death.

Evangelicals and other Christians continue to send kids to “pray the gay away” camps which are not only ineffective (and illegal in many states), but often leave permanent psychological damage.

So, when Evangelicals try to feign innocence in what has become one of the most tragic examples of persecution against LGBTs, you can see why I’m throwing the bullshit flag.  Every major Christian media site is trying to play this of as a problem of “radical Islam” and completely ignoring their own history of “radical Christian” discrimination against LGBTs.  Evangelicals don’t get to sweep this incident under the rug as a “Muslim problem” – this is a hate problem; and Evangelicals are just as culpable as anyone else for spreading hatred and intolerance towards LGBTs.   I have no doubt that if the shooter had been a Christian, it wouldn’t have made any difference; Evangelicals would simply claim that “he wasn’t a TRUE CHRISTIAN!”.  This crime is a result of hatred for a minority group that has long been victimized by Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, yet suddenly they want to pretend that this incident has nothing to do with them and claim innocence.  Like an abusive husband being concerned when his wife gets in an accident, they want to suddenly pretend that have a heart for the LGBT community.

Well, I’m not buying it.

The only reason we are suddenly seeing an outpouring of sympathy and prayers is because of how public and brutal this attack was.  LGBTs have been dying for decades as a result of hate and discrimination, but it’s only now that people are paying attention.

I didn’t hear Evangelicals lamenting over the 1,500 LGBTs that commit suicide last year.

I don’t hear them lamenting over the all the hate crimes committed against LGBTs every year here in America.

I don’t hear them lamenting over the thousands of LGBTs killed in Africa as a result of the hate brought there by American pastors and missionaries.

Many people have deluded themselves into pretending that their level of discrimination is somehow better than what happened in Orlando, because “at least we’re not going around shooting gay people!”  That’s because Evangelicals don’t have to go on shooting rampages – they just make life so fucking miserable for LGBTs that they take their own lives.  Evangelicals don’t get to denounce the Koran/Islam and its teachings while pretending their views are any less deplorable.  As Benjamin Corey puts it: “Yes, they are correct to denounce the evil that led to such a horrific massacre. But no, they don’t have a moral or ideological alternative that gives them a moral high ground that’s perched high enough to pretend their religious views are all that better.”


Coming from an unlikely source, Jen Hatmaker sums it up perfectly (emphasis mine):

It is very difficult to accept the Christian lament for LGBTQ folks in their deaths when we’ve done such a brutal job of honoring them in their lives. It kind of feels like:

“We don’t like you, we don’t support you, we think you are a mess, we don’t agree with you, we don’t welcome you, we don’t approve of you, we don’t listen to you, we don’t affirm you. But please accept our comfort and kind words this week.”

Anti-LGBTQ sentiment has paved a long runway to hate crimes. When the gay community is denied civil liberties and respect and dignity, when we make gay jokes, when we say ‘that’s so gay’, when we turn our noses up or down, when we qualify every solitary statement of love with a caveat of disapproval, when we consistently disavow everything about the LGBTQ community, we create a culture ripe for hate. We are complicit.

We cannot with any integrity honor in death those we failed to honor in life.

Can you see why the Christian outpouring of compassion toward Orlando feels so disingenuous? It seems like the only harm toward the LGBTQ community that will overcome Christian disapproval is a mass murder. We grieve not publicly for your dehumanization, suicide rates (individual deaths have failed to move us), excommunications, denial of liberties, hate crimes against you, religious exclusion, constant shame beatdown.

Christian love has yet to outpace Christian disdain.

Perhaps instead of saying “we’re sad” this week, we should begin with “we’re sorry.”

Not: We’re sorry but…
Not: We’re sorry if…
Not: We’re sorry as long as…

Just: We’re sorry. Full stop.

Someone on Facebook was upset that I was “dragging Christians” into this.  Here’s the thing: I wouldn’t be needing to write any of this if Christians, by and large, had had actually shown some genuine care and concern for the LGBT population.  If they hadn’t spent years doing everything short of gunning down gays in a club to show how much they hate and revile anyone whose sexual orientation isn’t 100% straight.  If they had actually been allies; in their corner, as they fought for equal rights instead of being the ones they had to fight against.

If Christians truly care, and are horrified by what happened in Orlando, then STOP with all this bullshit about homosexuality being a “sin.” Stop treating LGBTs as people who are “broken” and need to be made straight.  Stop supporting “religious freedom” bills.  Stop standing in the way of anti-discrimination laws.  Stop pretending you are innocent in all this, and just admit that you were wrong. 

And then start treating LGBTs as normal human beings.

I truly hope that this will be a wake up call to this country that all of this anti-LGBT bullshit needs to stop – that beliefs lead to actions, often with disastrous results.  I hope that “Remember Orlando!” becomes a rally cry anytime some Bigot-for-Jesus takes to the media to de-humanize LGBTs, or some Republican tries passing yet another anti-LGBT bill.

Yeah, you’re damn right I’m pissed off…



Mythbusters: De-conversion (Pt 2)

This is going to be an extension of a previous post I wrote addressing some of the common misunderstandings and stereotypes people have about those who leave religion.  The first post was more personal in nature, but this one is going to be a bit more universal and is going to address some of the common reactions one gets from Christians when they de-convert.

This post came about because a good friend of mine “came out” as an atheist on Facebook.  Some people were supportive, but like most people here in the Midwest, a good percentage his friends and acquaintances are Christian.  Their reactions to his decision were as predictable and infuriating as one can expect, and that is what we will be discussing here

Before we get into it, I want to talk about a common theme one sees with Christians* when faced with an alternate view point.  It’s what is known as the false-consensus effect: a cognitive bias whereby people tend to overestimate the extent to which their opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are normal and typical of those of others (i.e., that others also think the same way that they do). This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist; a “false consensus”.

Captain Cassidy gets even more specific with this bias and how it relates to Christianity and their beliefs regarding atheists.  She likes to call it “The Law of Conservation of Worship” – for every action and belief Christians hold, their enemies and sales targets must also have an equal and opposite reactionary action and belief.  Spiritual practices are neither created nor destroyed; as beliefs change, they simply transfer to another method of expression.

We’ll see this theme of false-consensus popping up throughout these common myths, so I thought we’d get it out of way before we got started.  So let’s get into some of the common things one hears when they come out as an atheist:

“This is just a phase /you’ll be back”

I’ve heard parents use this same phrase when their kids come out to them as gay.  It’s a knee-jerk reaction caused by cognitive dissonance sent into overload.  It’s simple denial – some people just can’t wrap their heads around the fact that other people can leave the religion they hold in such high regard.  Regardless of what denomination you belong to, when you go to church you are lead to believe that Christianity is the “One True Religion” and God/Jesus are supposed to be your #1 priority.  To see someone not only walk away from that, but denounce it as false comes as a big blow to some.  Rather then accept it, they would rather just hope that it isn’t really true.

Let’s clear things up a bit.  No one becomes an atheist overnight.  It is not a decision one takes lightly and is typically the cumulative result of months, if not years, of careful and deliberate research and thought.  It is not “just a phase” and I’ve never met anyone who has gone through the de-conversion process only to go back to religion.  Once you find out that religion is demonstrably false, there is little chance you are going to decide one day that it is “true” and go back to it.  Those of us who have broken rank from Christianity know too much about its history and where it came from, how fallible the Bible really is, and how useless and counter-productive Christianity’s culture and practices are.  Why would we go back to that?

“It’s religion you have a problem with, not God”

This one plays out in a number of ways.  People either assume that you have been personally hurt by the Church or have become fed up with the negative and harmful behavior of some Christians.

While Christianity’s homophobia, misogyny, nationalism, willful ignorance, and constant struggle for political power is certainly what drives many down the path towards reason, it is not what makes someone an atheist.  Similar to a point I’ve brought up before, it’s not that an atheist has a problem with God – it’s that they don’t believe in God.  Period.  

This is a good example of false consensus – Christians naturally assume that everyone believes in God in some way, so if someone claims to be an atheist, then organized religion must be what they really don’t believe in because they couldn’t possibly not believe in God.  Right?  Wrong.

It is possible to not believe in any god/deity/higher power and tens of millions all over the world do just that.  In the same way that children grow out of believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, millions of people have grown out of believing in god(s).  I know that comparing God to the Tooth Fairy may be offensive to some, but you need to understand that atheists don’t see any difference – to them, they are both mythological beings that exist only in peoples’ minds.

“Satan is trying to deceive you”

It’s still surprising to me how often I see this one come up.  People who use this line of reasoning fail to understand that atheists don’t believe in any supernatural deities.  This includes God, Satan, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Thor, etc.  Arguing that one mythological being is trying to sway us from believing in another mythological being is illogical and ineffective to say the least.

I can already hear people saying, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled…”  Stop.  Just stop.  We’ve all seen The Usual Suspects.  It doesn’t help your case.  Quoting a fictional movie to make a case for you fictional deities isn’t a good tactic.

“The Bible says…”

For Christians, the Bible is the ultimate authority and their first, if not only, source of “truth”.  When faced with conflict it seems all to natural for them to turn to it for help.  When faced with the cognitive dissonance of one leaving their ranks, it’s natural for them to start quoting Bible verses as if they have some magical powers.

I saw a meme once that said, “The road to atheism is littered with Bibles read cover to cover”.  An appropriate statement.  For most atheists, the road out of religion starts with a thorough reading of the Bible, and what we discover is that it is an entirely man-made book, filled with all the prejudices, biases, and ignorance one would expect from a text written by an ancient people.  If someone has come to the conclusion that there is no god, it’s a safe bet that belief in the accuracy and authority of the Bible went away a long time again.  Therefore, quoting scripture is of no significance to us.  You might as well be quoting the Koran or Lord of the Rings; it really makes no difference.

To quote Neil Carter from the article I linked above: “When talking with Christian friends online, I often find that they can’t help citing a Bible verse as their proof–text in order to reinforce a point they are making, as if that is supposed to mean something to me.  For non-believers with backgrounds like mine, not only does the citation not prove anything but virtually any passage you select will be so familiar to us that we are weary of hearing it cited for the ten-thousandth time, probably arguing the exact same point, perhaps even in exactly the same way as every time before.  It’s become like a bad joke among ex-Christians how slavishly it seems people are imitating one another without showing the slightest self-awareness of how badly they’re doing it.”

“You have faith too”

This one usually presents itself something like this, “You need faith to believe in science the same as you do God.”  This is a very common argument among theists, more specifically theists who have no idea how science works.  I addressed this argument once before, but it’s worth repeating here.  Having “faith” in science is not the same as having faith in the religious sense.  This is example of false equivocation.  There are two definitions of the word “faith”: (1) confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing; and (2) belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.  Atheists’ “faith” in science fits under definition 1, theists rely on faith as defined by 2.  Atheists don’t have faith in a religious sense of the word – they have evidence-based trust.  

This is another example of a false consensus.  Those who hold to their religious claims on faith naturally assume that everyone’s worldviews are shaped this way.  But that is not the case with atheists and skeptics – our world view is shaped by empirically evidence, logic and reason, not simply believing in something because we want it to be true.

Another way that I see this argument worded is the accusation that everyone worships something, therefore atheists must also worship something.  Again – false consensus.  No, not everyone worships something.  I know this is commonly taught in Christian culture, I heard it said more times then I could remember, but it’s simply not true.  The definition of worship (as a verb) is: “to show reverence and adoration for (a deity); honor with religious rites.”  You can’t show reverence and adoration for something you don’t believe in.

“Don’t you worry about the afterlife?”

No.  No we don’t.  Because there is no evidence that there is an afterlife.  As far as we know, this life is the only one we get.  Once we die, that’s it.  I realize that the belief in an afterlife is common to all religions, and even with some people who aren’t religious, but that doesn’t make it any more true.

This one comes up both subtly-and not so subtly- in the form of threats of hell.  It’s exactly why the myth of hell was invented – to keep people in line and keep them from straying from the pack.  It’s inevitable that when someone leaves religion there’s going to be that one (or many) friend or relative that is going to let them know in no uncertain terms that they are headed for hell.  Threatening someone with a mythological place for not believing in a mythological god is not only ineffective, but only affirms the fear-based and controlling nature of religion that were likely instrumental in our departure.

A more reasonable question that some propose is if it makes us sad to know that this life is all there is.  Sure it does.  We all want to spend as much time as we can enjoying this life and spending time with the ones we love.  Which is exactly why we spend our time worrying about this life instead of worrying about the next.  Ricky Gervais was presented with this same question in an interview and I thought his response was spot on:

“There’s this strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for, it’s the opposite – we don’t have anything to die for.  We have everything to live for.”

I would love to be wrong about this.  I would love to die someday and wake up again in some other dimension or existence.  That would be a pleasant surprise.  But I’m going to hedge my bets on what we thus far know to be true about death, rather than what we wish to be true.

There’s a common myth that atheism is just another option in the game of “Choose Your Own Religion”, but it’s not – we’ve opted out of the game all together.  We don’t play by the same rules as theists.  Yet, many can’t seem to grasp this fact, desperately insisting that we really do believe in God/the supernatural/faith on some level.  This is their way of trying to rationalize their own belief system to themselves.  By claiming that we also have faith or believe in the afterlife, it makes it appear that atheists have simply made a lateral move from one belief system to another, when in reality we’ve jettisoned the whole construct.  As Captain Cassidy puts it:

“What they’re really trying to do is make their own beliefs sound a little less wacky and foolish – and more believable and relatable. There are several reasons why they do it – sometimes they just want to make themselves feel less wacky and foolish despite believing some wacky and foolish things, or they want to signal and affirm their membership in their group…

When Christians misrepresent our lives, experiences, and worldview in order to make us sound more like themselves, that’s a desperate attempt to create a common ground where (they hope) Christianity’s claims might start sounding a little bit more plausible.  

They think that tearing down our worldview will make us forget that they aren’t actually offering any evidence that their claims are true. They’re not giving us any good reason to believe in their god’s existence. They’re just trying to make us think that we’re already just as irrational and silly as they are, only in different ways, in the wild hopes that we will think it wouldn’t be quite so weird to consider their claims.”

That last paragraph really addresses why theists try to paint atheism the way they do.  In lieu of actual evidence for their truth-claims they resort to Straw-Man arguments in an attempt to deem atheism no better then their own faith system.  Hopefully I’ve pointed out the major differences between the stereotypes some Christians have regarding atheists and how to counter them.  Thanks for reading.

*NOTE:  While writing this, the lead singer of the Christian rock band, Order of Elijah, came out as an atheist.  The response was much like what I’ve described here – while many were supportive, others had plenty to say about it.  Captain Cassidy wrote a rebuttal to the criticisms that are going around that is well worth the read.  

*I mention Christians here because of how it pertains to the discussed subject, but false consensus can be found among any large group of people that share a common identity, whether it’s religious, political, national, or otherwise. 



False Hope on the Streets

Coming back from the Farmer’s Market this past weekend, I drove through downtown Sioux Falls and noticed something unusual going on outside the brewery I work at.  There were people setting up chairs and a PA system on the sidewalk.  The chairs were set up facing the street and spaced about three feet apart, as if they were intended for someone watching a parade.  Later that day, when I went into work, I found out what the chairs were for:

This is a group known as Healing On The Streets (HOTS).  You can read about HOTS on their website, but the main thing you need to know is that they believe they can heal people through prayer and put on events like this one on a regular bases.  From the local chapter’s website:

“It’s simple really.  We invite people to sit on chairs so we can pray for them.  We believe God LOVES YOU and CAN HEAL you… from back or neck pain, arthritis, depression, chronic pain, sleeping problems, allergies, headaches, smoking, addictions, walking difficulties, lung problems, anxiety, digestive problems, chest pain, or any other physical or emotional condition.”

HOTS is an international group, with franchises mostly in the US and in Europe.  The franchises are formed from members of various local churches.  They pick a time and a date for their event and advertise for it.  On the selected date they meet in the morning for training and then hit the streets and start praying.

So here’s my issue – HOTS is offering false hope to people who may likely have serious medical issues.  They are making claims regarding medical issues that they are not qualified to address.  They are offering a one-size-fits-all cure for a myriad of medical conditions that require a specific, medical treatment.  HOTS is nothing more then the modern-day version of a snake-oil salesman.

Now, I don’t believe the people who volunteer for HOTS are being intentionally deceptive or trying to con anyone.  They state in their advertisements that the events are free, make no guarantees, and I’m sure they genuinely believe that what they are doing is making a difference.  But the sincerity of a belief does not have any bearing on the validity of that belief.

There is no empirical evidence that prayer or “faith healing” actually works.  People have been studying the effects of intercessory prayer since the 1800’s.  To date, these studies have shown that prayer has no profound effect on the people being prayed for. In some cases, prayer has been shown to actually have a negative effect when people know they are being prayed for.

Beside not asking for money, I’m not seeing how HOTS programs are any less deceptive then the “faith healers” movement; a movement that has been thoroughly exposed as fraudulent, yet still continues to this day.  In fact, a little digging shows HOTS founder Mark Marx using one of the oldest tricks in the book for faith healers:

At the 4:30 mark in this video, illusionist Darren Brown demonstrates how this “miracle” is performed and shows that it is nothing more then a common side-show trick:

I’m not the first one to notice Marx’s deceptive tactics.  A fellow blogger has pointed out the inconsistencies (here and here) in these “miracles”.  Unlike the noted blogger, however, I make no reservations about calling Marx a fraud who is attempting to capitalize on people’s desperation and gullibility to make a lucrative business.   

Concerns have also been raised regarding HOTS in Europe.  In 2012, the group was banned from claiming it can heal people in the UK, after concerns were expressed that their claims could give scores of terminally-ill people false hope.  NHS Tayside, a healthcare provider in Scotland, warned the public about HOTS when they hit the streets in 2013, urging people with medical conditions to go directly to their GP for diagnosis and treatment.

So what’s the harm, you say?  What’s the harm in people coming out and being prayed over with the expectation that it will cure what ails them?  What’s wrong with a little hope?  The harm is that despite HOTS warnings*, many people do ignore medical treatment in favor of prayer, often with disastrous consequences.  Like the case of Zachery Swezey; a 17 year-old high school student who got appendicitis, but his parents believed in the power of prayer over the wisdom of medical experts. So, instead of going to the hospital, his parents stood over and watched him die.  Or the case of Alex Jacobsen; a mentally-ill man who attempted suicide after a faith-based treatment center replaced his medication with prayers and Bible study.  Or the case of Mariah Walton, a 20-year-old who suffers from pulmonary hypertension, a condition that doctors could have prevented if her parents had chosen to take her to a doctor.  Instead they chose to pray over her and rub olive oil over her body.  Walton is now mostly bedridden and has to carry an oxygen tank everywhere she goes.  Cases like this are unfortunately all too frequent, with examples popping up almost weekly.

So what is one to make, then, of the stories you hear of people being miraculously cured by prayer?  Simple.  It’s known as the placebo effect – a fake treatment that can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.  There’s nothing mysterious or supernatural going on here; the placebo effect is a well-documented natural occurrence, and has even been well documented in cases of “faith healing”.  This can become problematic, because while a placebo effect may give temporary relief to certain symptoms of a medical condition (such as relieving pain), there’s no strong evidence that it can cure the underlying issue.  If the issues go untreated, it can lead to severe problems, as the examples above demonstrate.

I realize that prayer is one of the foundations of most religions and is not going away anytime soon.  However, I wish people would quit allowing themselves to be duped by frauds offering snake-oil cures for serious conditions.  I wish people would quit believing prayer is a reasonable solution to real problems.  And I really wish these well meaning, but delusional folks would stop giving false hope to those who have already suffered enough.  Thanks for reading.


*At the bottom of the cards that HOTS hands out, there is a warning in small print which reads, “We encourage everyone so seek treatment for conditions for which medical advice should be sought.  If you are on any medications, STAY on it.  Under NO circumstances should you stop doing anything a medical professional or counselor has advised.”  I can’t say whether this same warning is verbalized during gatherings.






Reflections along the journey from faith to reason.

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