Saturday, January 26, 2008

What Christians mean by the "word of God".

The whole word of God thing is a bit complex because what most christians mean by this is:
  • What the pastor told me I had to believe,
  • because of what he was taught that something in the bible means,
  • that was translated by someone,from their selection of possible texts,
  • of books chosen by one particular group in the fourth cenury,
  • based on the translators particular theological background,
  • using modern understandings of word usage in ancient times,
  • from a text copied and recopied over hundreds of years,
  • which was written by a human being,
  • who was usually claiming to be someone else,
  • writing about things he had not directly witnessed,
  • quoting conversations verbatim that he could not have heard,
  • claiming that this was inspired by God.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Argument against proof for the existence of God from experience

One of the responses I have had from a few Christians to my deconversion story can be summarised like this:

"If you had experienced God like I have experienced God then you would believe too."

Yet, I have experienced similar things to the people who have said this (and in some cases in exactly the same places or organisations). I just seem to have interpreted them differently. Rather than looking for unlikely supernatural explanations I have tended to look for more obvious explanations based on reason and knowledge of how the world works. For example, the person whose life has been transformed by prayer, might have just found the confidence to turn their own life around, or the person healed of a gammy leg might already have been a lot better, but just needed the confidence to stop using a stick.

I think this is where the argument for the existence of God based on experience falls down. The whole thing is subjective and cannot be tested objectively.

There is also a certain element of over egging the pudding by Christians. I knew one person who had to go and have tests for cancer, was prayed for and found not to have cancer. This was proclaaimed as a local miracle when, in fact, she had never actually had cancer. The doctors just wanted to investigate it further because they were concerned about her condition.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Further background to my deconversion

There are two separate parts to my deconversion, my loss of belief in God and the collapse of the logic of the Christian faith.

1. The realisation that God is so unlikely to exist that it wouldn't make any difference whether he did or not.

Anyone looking at the facts would realise that the God described by Christianity, Judaism and Islam does not exist (I can't comment on other religions because I do not know enough about them). If God does exist he has not had any involvement with the world since he started the creative processes. His role can only be that of scientist, starting off an experiment and observing it. This is not the supreme being described by those religions, who will intervene to cure us of illness, forgive our sins or whisk us off to a better hereafter.

If we reduce God to the function of the man with the starting pistol or the mad scientist observing an experiment it doesn't take much to see that even that role is unnecessary. I am not a scientist but what I have read on cosmology and modern physics provides no evidence of the creation of matter from nothing. The universe may expand and contract over vast periods of time, there is not necessarily an initial big bang and creation ex nihilo.
Therefore there is no need for there to be a God or anything else to do any creating.

2. The realisation that my own religion, Christianity, did not make logical sense.

This is more difficult and more personal because I was a preacher. I trained for ministry in one of the world's top Divinity faculties under some very eminent scholars of the liberal Christian tradition. My personal faith was a large part of my own personality for a very long time.

So what attracted me to Christianity and the level of commitment that I had?First of all, the person and teachings of Jesus are very attractive. If more people behaved like him the world would be a better place, or at least thats the idea thats put around by people who have not read some of the more nasty things he is reported to have done and said in the four canonical gospels.

Here is just one example that shows his opinion of non Jews:

"And, behold, a woman of Canaan coming forth from those borders cried out to Him, saying, Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is badly demon-possessed. But He did not answer her a word. And coming near, His disciples asked Him, saying, Send her away, for she cries out after us. But answering, He said, I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But coming, she worshiped Him, saying, Lord, help me! But answering, He said, It is not good to take the bread of the children to throw it to the little dogs." (Matt 15:22ff)

Whatever actually happened in first century Palestine is shrouded in the interpretation put on it by the people who built up a religion around the man Jesus; there is no real historical Jesus that can be uncovered. He may not even have existed; there are even clues within the four gospels that suggest it is myth rather than history. For example, Bethlehem was known for two things: making bread for use in temple ceremonies and breeding animals for sacrifice, hence it being the ideal place for Jesus to be born, among the animals that would one day be replaced as a sacrifice by him. The wise men from the east even presented him with gifts of embalming products which conveniently prefigure his ultimate purpose. The gospels read more like mythology than history.

There are all sorts of logical problems as well. People sin, God cannot accept them in a sinful state so there has to be a sacrifice of blood. God then sacrifices his own son, who is also God so that he can forgive us anyway; therefore there was no need for the sacrifice at all.Of course this comes from legal ideas from the ancient near east. This is mentioned in the bible as the law of the "Medes and Persians" in the book of Esther, that rather than cancelling one law they have to have another law put on top of it to reverse the effects of the original one.

I could expand on this for hours, possibly one day I will write a book or maybe I should go back to my alma mater and do a PhD?

The community feeling of being in a church with like minded people is very comforting especially in a society which is lacking in community. The church provides a social network that does work. However, it requires the members to be less free thinking and less questioning than I naturally am. To me life is about asking questions and discovering new things. I remember getting into terrible trouble for my belief that Jesus was not a carpenter (an idea that is based on a wrong translation of the Greek word tekton by Wycliffe or Coverdale). It was put to me that this would undermine other people's faith. Well it couldn't have been much of a faith then! I suppose the problem is that if Jesus was not a carpenter but some sort of builder how did he earn a living in Nazareth? Well I could answer that question but it might require me to relocate Nazareth and therefore undermine the truth of the bible. Its another shaky foundation.

So what is my attitude to Christianity now?

I don't really feel the need to try and damage or destroy Christianity, but I do want to encourage Christians to think for themselves and question things that they are being taught. Take the simple idea that God is eternal. It's in lots of hymns but it is not clearly stated anywhere in the bible. If you have been misled about something as central as this what else have you been misled about and what else can you investigate? If you start looking you will find all sorts of holes in the scheme of Christianity.

If you are a Christian reading this and recognise that you are asking the same sort of questions I did then I would be happy to help you think through the issues. I have benefitted greatly from moving on from Christianity and you might too.

What if I am wrong?

Well I don't think that I am totally right. Understanding the purpose of life and our role in the universe is a work in progress for all of us. I don't think I have all the answers or any solutions that would necessarily apply to anyone else. If it turned out that God did exist then I would be surprised and somewhat disappointed that he had not made himself known or helped us out from time to time.

Am I entitled to express these opinions and ideas?

Yes. We do not live in a medieval world; we live in a world of scientific investigation and discovery. What is wrong with questioning religious ideas? What does the church have to lose? What does it have to hide? How can asking a question be against a religion if that religion is actually true?Christians seem to feel threatened by me. Some see me as being utterly evil or having the spirit of antichrist just because I dared to ask "why?" Well I am going to continue asking the hard questions even if it annoys them.

Friday, January 18, 2008

From Christian to Atheist


It is with some trepidation that I write this but I need to come clean with a number of friends around the world and writing it down seems to be the best way of structuring an explanation of where I find myself.

My journey out of faith

First of all I didn't wake up one day and decide "hey I am going to become an atheist". In fact I don't think its possible to become an atheist as atheism is an absence of belief in God rather than a positive belief in something.

It happened like this. One day I realised that I no longer believed that there was a need for a God in order for me to exist or life itself to be worthwhile. The main question that I could not answer from my Christian beliefs was "who created God?". If biological life needed something to create it then God needs a creator. One answer is that God has always just existed, but you could say that about life itself. Maybe life has always existed? We know that’s not true because of evolution and if the bible is wrong about the origins of life (which it clearly is - animals did not appear as fixed species and human history is longer than the 6000 years the bible suggests) then it must be wrong about all sorts of other things.

If Adam did not exist and did not sin then there is no need for a second Adam. Indeed, suppose that atonement was necessary, how could the death of one man actually make God change his mind, especially if the man dying was actually God? It all started to unravel when I looked at the logic of the whole scheme of Christianity.

I did try to discuss these issues with various Christian friends but the universal advice I got was variations on "just believe". In other words, just pretend to believe, agree to all the creeds, but don't really believe and you will be OK when you die, just in case you were wrong. This did not make any sense to me. It had no integrity to it so I had to accept that I did not believe any more and just tell people the truth.

This seemed to be an honest approach, but it was quite challenging for them. Generally their response was to argue in favour of God's existence either from creation or by trying to prove the historical accuracy of scripture (on the basis that if it is right about history then it must be right about theology). It was rather like being cross examined by an advocate who also did not know the real truth but knew what the law said.

I also looked at the standard proofs for the existence of God from Thomas Aquinas and St Anselm, but I did not find these either helpful or convincing.

One brave person

One brave person called Ross (thank you Ross) from a church I attended years ago did engage with me by email which was very kind of him. This included the big question of how anything can exist (creation out of nothing).

I replied:

If God created everything out of nothing, where was he when he did it?

Thats the problem with using that argument, it actually pushes any possibility of God out of the picture.
Matter can not be created or destroyed it just exists and changes.
Science uses superstring theory in physics to suggest that the universe expands and contracts so there is no need for a single big bang event
or something being created from nothing.

In fact Jewish thinking is that God created himself in Genesis chapter one.
Early Christians separated the idea of the creator God from the God, whom they were praying to, which is one reason why Jesus gets assumed to be pre existent and doing the creative acts in Genesis 1.
This allowed the father to be higher than the son/creator.

This also raises the argument in favour of God from complexity.
i.e. something as complex as our world must have been created by something greater than itself.
The same can be said about God.
There must have been something bigger than God that created him, yet if thats true then God is not God.
Therefore the argument from complexity is also self defeating.

This is the problem. There is just not enough evidence for the existence of God or for the need for a God in order for things to be the way they are.

Some reactions from my other Christian friends

These have ranged from "I always knew there was something not quite right about you" to quotations from the parable of the sower about some seed falling on stony ground where it withers and dies, as if this is an occupational hazard and not something they have to be too concerned about. I have also had a large number say "I will be praying for you". I wonder how long they will pray for me?

The overall results and effects

First the negatives:

  • I have no contact with any of my friends from church. No one from the church has contacted me since I said I was stopping going. Its like I have stopped existing. It turned out they were all conditional friendships. This has been very painful. People who I thought cared about me as a person turned out to only care about me as a soul that could be won or lost and put on the trophy shelf (in some ways I do feel like a bit of a fool thinking they were my friends, I imagine I am a bit like someone coming out of a cult, I have a bereavement process to go through). To be fair I have not tried to contact them but a couple of them have walked to the other side of the street to avoid me so I have been a bit scared to contact them.
  • There is a certain embarassment factor involved in how other people see me. I was a person of faith for so long that they would expect me losing it to have wrecked my life, but I have not really changed.

Now the positives:

  • I now realise that only I can help myself. There are no quick fixes or miracle cures. If I am going to make my life better then I have to do it myself. I am no longer bound by the guilt of having to seek professional help rather than prayer or miracle cures so I am going into inter personal therapy with a psychologist and making various changes to my life to improve my wellbeing.

  • I have developed a great interest in nature. As a Christian I could climb a mountain look down and say "how great is the world that God has created", but I had little interest in the workings of the natural world. Since my deconversion I have started to get great pleasure from small things like watching spiders build webs and birds feeding in the garden. Its as if I can see my place in the world in context for the first time and I enjoy watching all the other living things.

  • I can see a point to living. I now know what I am here for. As well as passing on my genes to my children the world is being built on the actions that I and all the other people living today are taking every day. Human progress is actually an accumulation of what everyone from every previous generation has done. We all build on what has gone before, so I really believe that I am actually worth something rather than being a soul who may or may not end up in a lake of fire.

Some thoughts about the church

At the same time as I was going through this I started to realise some things about the church I had been attending for about eighteen months:

If you joined and your life was not significantly transformed within six to nine months they lost interest in you.

They did not like people asking difficult questions and in group bible studies they asked people not to disagree with any of the material during the group discussion but take it up with the leaders afterwards (something that really set my alarm bells ringing, actually I laughed the first time I heard it because I thought it was a wind up).

A large number of people had drifted through the church over the years so they were used to people leaving. It seemed like a good place to be where everything worked for the people that were there, but what was happening was that of all the people who passed through the only ones that stayed were those for whom it worked. Therefore it gave the impression that it was making a difference to the lives of those who were there and that it could do the same for anyone. I call this the "filter effect".

So what was happening was that people were drifting through the church and if their lives were changed for the better they stuck in the filter and this created the group of people who made up the church.

Some side issues for Christians to consider

At the same time I was becoming very concerned about contemporary Christianity's urge to distance itself from science and discourage scientific explanations for physical effects. At a simple level mental illness has to be caused by a demon not by physiological changes in the brain. I was very concerned that I was bringin up my children in an environment where science was not trusted and they were not going to be able to acheive their full potential as contributors to society by being part of a ghetto.

To set the record straight
Just to be absolutely clear I was a soundly converted, born again, bible believing, spirit filled Christian and I was attending a Pentecostal church when all of this happened. I was not lacking in any aspect of my experience of God. If anything I was looking for facts to back up experience and found the facts to be extremely lacking once the surface was scratched.

Since I originally wrote this article I have clarified some of the issues in another article - click here to read it.

Please read this before commenting on this article
I welcome comments on my blog and generally let them all through whether negative or positive.

However, this article is my personal opinion and feelings on these issues.
I am not saying I am right and you are wrong.
I am not interested in promoting atheism or trying to destroy Christianity.
In fact if Christianity can be destroyed by one blog article then it really can't be much of a faith.
It is entirely possible that I might change my mind again at some point, but if I do it will be because I have found evidence for God, not because someone on the internet has expressed concern about the fate of my soul or argued with me about the flood or how the evolution of the eyeball.

If you still want to comment then please go ahead.