Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lifeboat, what is this supposed to teach?

So I ran into a reference to an exercise that's taught in schools called "lifeboat". I'm rather unclear what this is supposed to teach.  I believe the idea is to explicate how values lead to morals, but if someone has used this exercise and would like to weigh in I'd love to hear.

The exercise is below


Values Clarification Exercise

The Queen Elizabeth III, a major ocean liner, left the coast of England two days ago.  The ship is on its way to New York.  There is an international passenger list and the majority of the people have just entered the dining room for lunch.  All of a sudden there is a major explosion in the engine room.  Life boats are released and the passengers start to board them.  The ship is slowly sinking and there remains only one more lifeboat.  It holds six people, but there are ten people on deck.  Here is the list of ten people:

1. African-American activist, second-year medical student
2. Rabbi, 54 years old
3. Swedish bio-chemist
4. Hollywood actress-singer-dancer
5. Arab diplomat
6. Japanese accountant, 31 years old
7. his wife, six months pregnant
8. Brazilian athlete-all sports
9. Hispanic poet, 42 years old
10. CIA agent with interpreting skills

The task for your group is to decide which six people will board the last lifeboat and which four will down with the queen Elizabeth III.  You will have ten minutes to decide.  Which four will you eliminate?  Why?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sects to Evangelicals

This is my 3rd versions in the sects series. This image is large and may not be laying out clearly on your browser. This link is to a vector graphics version link  to download or view isolated.    I had originally put this image together up to about the year 1000 for a debate on Christian origins.  I got inspired to expand when I had to discuss origins of the Reformation and ideas from it.  I think this is a useful reference post, and also might lead to some good discussion.  Something like the above is likely what happened.

At this point the chart covers the origins of the those sects that were fundamental to the development of American Christianity, going all the way back.   Arrows are for strong influence or descent, these sects are interacting with one another and passing ideas between them just as religions today do.  Coloring of the arrows is to help reduce visual complexity, and it doesn't mean anything beyond that.  Where possible I've tried to include a sample work in parenthesis for each sect making it clear how I'm using the term and also demonstrating at a glance the evolution in thought.  It is also for the early part, letting the chart do double duty explicating the origins of the bible.

In terms of the colors of the circles:

Salmon is for groups that are Jewish sects.  They may have Christian aspects but they are not yet meaningfully Christian, they are most senses fundamentally Jewish or Samaritan.
Light Blue are proto-Christianities.
Yellow are full blown alternate Christianities, from ancient times.  "Gnosticism" used in the religious sense.
Purple is for groups that I can meaningfully call Catholic, western or eastern rite.
Pink  groups that broke away Catholicism. Sects that I would agree are "schismatic".
Dark Olive Green non-Christian religions.
Yellow-Green is for non-Christian groups with strong Christian influence.
Muddy Pink I'm using for Hermetic Christianity.
Dark-Brown for proto-Protestantism
Red-Brown for Protestantism
Magenta for the non-creedal sects of the Radical Reformation and their descendants 

In terms of the history it presents the following structure of development:

Hellenistic Judaism: When Alexander invades Judea, Judaism starts to fragment. When the Maccabees come to power they institute religious persecution and send fringe jewish movements all over the Roman Empire. After the Romans gain control these fringe movements roll back into Palestine.

Gnostic Judaism: As (from Jewish perspectives) the promises of Yahweh in terms of national salvation failed to be fulfilled many of these fringe movements begin to spiritualize or eschatologize these promises and begin experimenting with different ways of conceptualizing the Jewish scriptures. We can call this Their are aspect of what will later become Christianity in their theogy but they still mostly Jewish. We can call this Gnostic Judaism but there are non Gnostic sects like Hermetic Jews that are also part of these groups.

Jewish Christianity: These sects begin to interact with one another and try and unify their theologies. They are at this point starting to diverge from Judaism heavily become a full blown schismatic religion. These schismatic forms of Judaism are much more attractive to non-Jews, especially "god fearers" which were quite often the products of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews or marginal Jews. These Jewish-Christians sects grow to become the dominant forms of Christianity. (this in answer to the earlier question is where Paul comes in). As an aside the defining characteristic of Jewish Christianity is a strong degree of emotion tied to the Jewish God, some Jewish Christian sects will over the next two centuries become increasing negative about his role, considering him a liar that tricked them into destructive wars and a false religion.

Catholicism and Manichaeism Judaism is almost entirely annihilated in the three Jewish Roman wars between 66 and 134 CE. Christianity begins to appeal to slaves and the lower classes even among people with little Jewish association. It becomes a religion loosely based on Jewish Christianity which lays claim to the entire deposit of faith calling itself "Catholicism". Meanwhile the Jewish Christian sects come into contact with other faith traditions like Persian Buddhism that allow them to reconceptualize their faith and evolve into a few non-Christian Gnostic forms the most popular being Manichaeism.

Roman Catholicism: The Catholic church offers a system for unifying religion having just recently pulled together the different strands of Christianity into a single whole. It is first fought against and then adopted by the Roman state. It fails to unify the people's fast enough to benefit the Roman empire, but is able to unify then during the next 400 years becoming one of the main the vehicle by which Western Culture survived the Dark Ages. It overcomes most other forms of Christianity completely overturning Arianism in the north and leaving remaining Pockets of Christianity which are closer to the original forms existing only in fragments of the Byzantine empire.

proto-Protestantism: As the Byzantine empire falls to Islam these alternative Christianities and early writings are rediscovered in the West and start to change people's outlook on their relationship with God. Western forms of Christianity which are theologically closer to Jewish Gnosticism start to emerge and hybrids of those "European Gnostic sects" and Catholicism form.

Protestantism: Religions reformers, political reformers who want a more nationalist church and the radical reformers who hate the Catholic church and want to found a new church agree to work together.   The elements the Protestant Reformation are very old with the Cathari and the Beguines as the father and mother of the reformation,  Christian Humanism playa an important role and everything develops from the 13th century combination of: primitivism, a desire for a lay church and a theological neo-Gnosticism lite.    In America the ideas of the Radical Reformation spread and become the dominant form.

In terms of remaining issues there are two that bother me.  The first is that the Catholic section is terrible.   Originally the chart just covered Catholic development up to the ancient world, so I only needed a 1/2 dozen Catholic sects.   This one covers Catholicism in the middle ages, so to do it justice I'd probably need over a 100 sects and the diagram would be a sea of purple with a border in the other colors.  I think top priority for the next round, is a full treatment of the origins of the Eastern Sects.

The other is I'm not sure about the Ebionites and the Elkasaites.  If anyone has any suggestions there about the relationship please jump in.  I think I'm going to need to jump into some Dead Sea Scrolls material to work this out.  And of course any other suggestions are welcome.


See also:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Religious change terminology

Ryan Cragun has written an interesting dictionary for religious change (source).  Since this is embedded in a pdf here are the highlights broken out:

exiter any person who leaves a religion

  • disaffiliate a person who leaves a religion by formally requesting their name be removed from the membership roles of the religion
  • disidentifier a person who leaves a religion by no longer self-identifying as a member of the religion
  • apostate a person who leaves a religion and then fights against that religion
  • deserter a person who leaves a religion with no intention of returning

switcher a person who leaves a religion and joins another religion

  • within family switcher someone who leaves a religion and joins a religion that belongs to the same broad religious family (e.g., Methodist to Baptist)
  • between family switcher a person who leaves a religion and joins a religion that belongs to a different broad religious family (e.g., Catholic to Buddhist)
  • taster a person who repetitively joins and leaves religions
  • defector a person who leaves a religion with the intent of joining a rival group

convert anyone who experiences a change in religious identity

  • deconvert a person who leaves a religion

none a person who does not associate with a religion

  • re-none a person who leaves a religion and becomes a religious none
  • native none a person raised without a religious identity who has not joined a religion
  • religious independent a person with no religious affiliation
  • dropout a person who leaves a religion and becomes a religious none
  • unchurched a person raised without a religious affiliation who has never joined one

identifier a person who self-identifies as being associated with an organized religion

  • affiliate a person who claims formal membership status in an organized religion
  • stayer a person who was raised with a religious affiliation and remains religiously affiliated later in life, regardless of any changes in affiliation.
  • loyalist a person raised with a specific religious affiliation who maintains that affiliation later in life. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

It gets better and Mormonism

In dealing with the very high rates of homosexual suicide there is a movement called "It gets better" aimed at convincing kids not to take drastic action.  Generally the videos are aimed at middle to high school aged students.  This is a similar video aimed at BYU students.

 In 2007 BYU stopped expelling gay students and in 2010 they allowed the creation of a gay alliance movement on campus.  The results are, as is obvious from this video, obviously positive.  This is keeping with the broader direction of the church.  In 1998 many officials within the LDS church stopped using "so called gays and lesbians" effectively denying the existence of homosexuals. It appears that more officially the last few years the church has shifted position and no longer considers the homosexual inclination to be a result of sinful behavior, nor even sinful.  

They still encourage people with same sex attraction to enter into heterosexual marriages, with no acknowledgement of how devastating that can be for both parties.  They still, officially and culturally blame homosexuals for homophobia because of their political activities which to me is reminiscent of anti-Semites blaming anti-Semitism on Jewish obnoxiousness.   They support Evergreen International, a "pray away the gay" scam.

So certainly the LDS continues a shameful history of anti-gay activism, but the last decade shows hope are addressing it and making some rather dramatic progress.  Hopefully seeing their children not have to leave the church and instead make videos like the above, is a source of pride of their progress.  For me it is wonderful to see a conservative church, especially one that has consistently focused on encouraging homophobia and anti-gay activities moving in the right direction.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why Natural Family Planning (NFP) is a non answer

The problem with NFP is the results in practice.  It is the case among people with years of experience who practice in a disciplined way that NFP has a pregnancy rate of .6-1.8% which is in line with chemical methods (study). But actually doing this is rather difficult, for example in the study cited above 13% of the women who had originally expressed interested in NFP refused to continue to use NFP in practice, even with extensive support services made available to them.  Support far beyond what can be given in a widespread way.

When NFP is used by people who take it semi-seriously they have 7.5% chance of getting pregnant per cycle, to put that in perspective couples having frequent sex with no contraception of any type have 28% chance of pregnancy per cycle.

Because differences like this, though generally not this large, are common, when measuring birth control effectiveness: means are evaluated using a "typical use" scale not a "perfect use scale".  So for example condoms when used every time and with a spermicidal gel have a 98% effectiveness rate (i.e. with perfect use a sexually active woman will get pregnant only 2% of the time).    When used by actual people mistakes happen and the actual actual effectiveness rate is measured at 85%.   Where NFP methods are heavily used unintentional pregnancy rates among sexually active women are about 24%. Considering we are talking several decades of sexually active fertility even a 10% failure rate would mean 2-3 extra children over the course of a woman's lifetime.

Western women seem to be heading towards a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman, and even in America non immigrant woman are at 2.1 children per woman; NFP simple doesn't seem effective enough in the absence of heavy use of abortion.

Moreover, there is a bit of irony.  If one adopts the currently fashionable definition that life begins at conception NFP greatly increases the incidence of implantation failure, which would be miscarriage under this definition, by encouraging sexual activity during the period when women still conceive but the fetus tends to fail to implant successfully. NFP, the Catholic church's recommended practice causes vast vast numbers of natural abortions over the course of a couple's life. So I would strongly disagree with the church, that it is not the intentional killing of children, if one defines life to begin at conception, and one defines "intent" in any consistent way.

The church is simply aiming for an irreconcilable situation:
  1. They have over the last 200 years redefined abortion to apply much earlier than quickening, i.e. when the woman first feels fetal movement. This eliminates the sorts of birth control methods that were popular in previous centuries, which we would today call "abortion inducing drugs". It also introduces the moral issues with NFP I cited above.
  3. They have redefined marriage to be primary about sex rather than primary about property and legitimate heirs. Thus there is no longer any distinction made between non-marital and marital pregnancy, as well as making much distinction between adultery and fornication. This to some extent is compounded in our society that has moved towards late marriage.
  5. They dismiss artificial contraception of virtually any type as immoral. Thus eliminating the only means humans have discovered that in a widespread and reliable way is capable of keeping a woman's fertility down to 1-3 children per lifetime without heavy use of abortion (in the modern sense of the word).
  7. They do aim for their standards to be adopted in a widespread way, and not seen as just theoretical goals that no one in practice actually follows.
When people talk about supporting birth control what they mean is keeping the fertility numbers down at the 1-3 children per woman over the course of their life. Standards of living correlate very strongly with per capita energy consumption. Energy production is not substantially boosted by population, it should be thought of as a limited resource growing slowly. High energy demand, effectively high energy prices, have been "a" if not "the" primary cause of global economic growth being constrained for the last 2 generations.  That is, what is primarily preventing 3rd and 4th world people from having a good standard of living are these high energy prices. While technology is allowing us to boost energy production somewhat every percentage point of population growth is a percentage point of growth not available to raise the living standards of the poor.  This tradeoff translates into millions of lives lost every year, not even discussing quality of life. Quite simply, overwhelming number of people, even people who care deeply about the sanctity of life, on this planet would prefer less children being born to everyone being subjecting to grinding poverty.

If the church wants Humane Vitae to be taken seriously they either need to indicate:

i) What is the unknown secret for massive energy production to allow for a growing population?

ii) How to maintain fertility at the rate of around 1-2.25 children per woman over the course of their life in practice using NFP?

See also

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Thoughts about Adam-God

Sara Clugage's
Adam Kadmon
There is an Evangelical myth which comes up frequently when there is a discussion of Mormonism that is probably worth dispelling.  The myth goes something like this: in 1852 Brigham Young started teaching that God the Father and the Adam from Genesis were the same person.  Adam was an exalted mortal man who came with one of his wives Eve to earth, ate of the tree of knowledge to become mortal and begat human children.  This Adam later returned to earth to have sex with Mary and become the father of Jesus.  In the Evangelical timeline version of the story, Orson Pratt objected to this teaching and Brigham continued to teach it throughout his life, with most Mormons of the 1850-1870s believing this.  Later the church covered it up, and denied this doctrine had every been taught.   This incident proves that Brigham was a false prophet, and the LDS a false church.  To prove this rather substantial theory they present two pieces of evidence: a few second hand paragraphs with some scattered quotes from sermon records of the time spread over two decades, and the fact there are also several fundamentalist Mormon sects that still hold to a view that Adam was Elohim and physically impregnated Eve to start creation. And that is the extent of the evidence.

Conversely the LDS church's version of events initially appears less convincing.  What they argue is that Brigham Young gave several sermons on the divinity of Adam,  a popular doctrine called "Adam-God" developed from these sermons as a misunderstanding.  The mainstream church starting with Joseph F. Smith became aware of this folk Mormon heresy and tried to surpress it.  This folk Mormon theology did however pass onto splinter sects that broke off from the LDS like the FLDS and Apostolic United Brethren.   I intend to argue the LDS church's version is correct, they are telling the truth.  And not only do I intend to prove that but to further present evidence that what Brigham was actually teaching was neither terribly controversial nor original, rather mainstream Hermeticism.

The first thing that happens if one begins to examine evangelical theory is that the very words of Brigham Young in his quotes about Adam-God contradict the fundamentalist doctrine.  For example:
  1. If Adam is Elohim why does Brigham speak of “revelation given to Adam” revelation from whom?
  2. Why does Elohim refer to “my son Adam” in Brigham’s sermons?
  3. Why does he in these reports of the sermons say of Adam and Eve “they are the children of our Heavenly Father” and refer to us as their children which contradicts the entire supposed point?
Even thinking of Elohim as a plurality of God's doesn't resolve these issues and I have yet to hear an evangelical define an Adam-God doctrine that is consistent with their theory and consistent with Brigham's quotes on the topic.  This in and of itself disproves the theory that the FLDS / AUB version of Adam-God represents the "authentic Brigham".  Brigham either contradicted himself and there was no consistent doctrine, or the fundamentalist version doesn't match his teaching.

But if the Mormon fundamentalist view is not what Brigham was preaching that leaves unanswered the crucial question; if Brigham didn't mean that Adam was Elohim what did he mean?  Brigham gives a crucial clue in those few paragraphs where he tells us he learned this doctrine from Joseph Smith.  Now we do know a lot about Joseph Smith's theology near the end of his life (see Mormonism as Hermetic Christianity part 3), he was a lifetime member of the Free Masons, studying Kabbalah and delving into Hermetic Christianity all three of which have a doctrine called "Adam Kadmon" that does fit with the Brigham quotes.

The story of creation in the Hebrew is extremely poetic.  Joseph Smith was aware of this, and in sermons of his he frequently complained about the poor quality of the English translation of his day (the King James Version) in capturing the nuances of the Hebrew for the introductory chapters of Genesis.  The issue for any translator is that various word plays in the Hebrew are impossible to translate into English.  For example when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit they discover they are naked in English.  In Hebrew they ambiguously discover they are naked and/or cunning.  There is simply no way to be ambiguous in English between naked and cunning, the translator into English is forced into making an interpretation and suppressing the ambiguity.

In the same way there are problems with the tradition language regarding Adam. Adam is literally "the man", it also used by convention as a name of a specific person (Adam).  This convention breaks down in several places, for example in Genesis 1
26 And God said, Let us make man (adam) in our image, after our likeness (order is reversed from what is normally gramatical.  The word for image here is literally statue) and let them have dominion (verb tense indicates purpose) over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
 27 So God created man (this time ha'adam literally  "the aforementioned man" ) in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female he created (created is in the singular, refers to a singular entity) them (them in English makes "created" plural which isn't capturing the Hebrew.  "It" would be standard English for singular so something like "it/them" would be needed here to capture the Hebrew).
Adam Kadmon
with 10 Sephirot
etc...  In Hebrew there is a lot more going on that isn't in your English translation.   Hellenistic Judaism, which after all saw its mission as to reconcile Judaism with Platonic philosophy, dealt with this language by introducing the idea of a spiritual Adam, Adam Kadmon.  This spiritual Adam is an image of the ten sephirot (attributes of God).  The image to the right has thse marked off and associated with body parts.  A configuration of the sephirot (Partzufim) is in a platonic / Hellenistic Jewish sense a particular image of God, a conception like an avatar.  So Adam Kadmon is a way of talking about a will of God, the same way God's wisdom is made manifest in works like: Sir 1:1-18; 4:11-19; 6:18-31; 14:20-15:10; 24:1-31; 51:13-30; Wis 7-9; Baruch 3:9-38.    This spiritual Adam, doesn't have material properties like sex, so if you look at the image of Adam Kadmon at the top of the post, you'll notice that the model (Brittany Spears) is female. As such Adam Kadmon is the perfect image of the Logos.   The material Adam, the one in the garden, as well as Eve would both be a reflection of Adam Kadmon, in keeping with the Hermetic "as above so below".  So God -> Logos -> Adam Kadmon -> material Adam / mythic Adam.  

This theology was fully developed by Philo and has remained part of Jewish mysticism since. It passed directly into primitive Christianity. Paul uses it casually in 1 Cor 15:45-50.  The idea is explicated in the Clementine literature, Jesus is the incarnation of the heavenly image, Adam Kadmon i.e. a materialization of the Logos.  Historically this idea becomes popular with the Elkasaites and other Gnostic Jewish groups and thus makes its way into Manichaeism where the 7 incarnation of Adam Kadmon are: Adam, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus.  From here no particular order it gets incorporated into Druze and Islamic Gnosticism where it makes its way back into Christian Hermeticism, which acts as an indirect base for Free Masonry.

This doctrine did not however make it into mainstream Christianity.  Saint Augustine, wrote the definitive interpretation of those early chapters of Genesis.  That interpretation was based on the Greek bible (the Septuagint) which does not have the poetic ambiguity of the Hebrew, though it contains hints of it like the English.  His interpretation is the classic view: original sin and the fall, both of which Joseph Smith rejected.  While he is familiar with the Adam Kadmon view, being a former Manichean himself, he rejects it.

Joseph in teaching Adam Kadmon would have been teaching a lost doctrine of early Christianity (at least of some major sects) that is engaging in Christian restoration.  His belief in this doctrine would be fully consistent with the "bible is true in so far as it is translated correctly" as this is a doctrine which comes directly from a good understanding of the originals.   This doctrine justifies many of his other theological shifts.  And the doctrine isn't even much of a stretch since, the idea of a heavenly Adam can easily be thought of as the "spirit child Adam".

I think it not just possible but likely that Brigham was preaching this, but being a bit loose on a few occasions about distinguishing between Adam Kadmon and material Adam.   What's more Adam Kadmon in Judaism is the father of all human souls, which is Elohim's role in traditional Mormonism.  As mentioned above Adam Kadmon is seen as either the father of the earthly Jesus, or earthly Jesus is an incarnation of Adam Kadmon.  And equally material Adam is either the son or an incarnation of Adam Kadmon.  So I can easily see how the roles in a few paragraph summary of Brigham's sermons got muddled.      For example in the December 28 1845,  Adam-God sermon Brigham talks about how Adam got his name from the "more ancient Adam", which would be confusing to anyone not familiar with this doctrine.

So for example:
  • Adam and Eve were the names of the first man and woman of every earth that was ever organized and that Adam and Eve were the natural father and mother of every spirit that comes to this planet
  • When you see your Mother that bear your spirit, you will see mother Eve
And so I propose:

a)  That Joseph Smith ran across a very mainstream Hermetic Christian doctrine in his studies.
b)  That Joseph Smith taught this theory to Brigham.
c)  That Brigham gave a few lectures on it over a period of decades, but did not cite the Hebrew.  Rather he used terms like "father Adam" for Adam Kadmon and Adam/"our father Adam" for material Adam.
d)  Because he did a bad job explicating this theory, the roles got muddled in the reports of these lectures and a folk Mormonism developed with these muddled roles / theology.
e)  The muddled roles got passed on to fundamentalist sects and codified.

Is all you have to believe to fully believe the LDS church's version of events.  What I would suggest is go back and read Brigham's reported sermons with this doctrine in mind, and you'll see how they suddenly make sense.

The next question is, why the opposition from Orson Pratt at the time?  Well the primary argument the two had was their respective theologies of exaltation.  Brigham saw it as progressing in quality, while Orson saw it as progressing in terms of quantity.  That is for Brigham God continues to progress in what he knows while for Orson the progression is in terms of his domain.    Adam Kadmon himself is timeless, eternal, non material. He is a divine creator of human life but unquestionably subordinate to the Logos and from there to Elohim.  In other words the doctrine of Adam Kadmon from a Mormon standpoint requires belief in Brigham's not Orson's theory of eternal progression.

Consistent with this, Orson was the primary advocate of Mormon Materialism (post on this topic), the doctrine that everything including the spiritual was matter that was simply re-organized by God.  The Adam Kadmon theory posits a non material Adam, cutting out the heart of Mormon metaphysics for Orson.    Moreover a non material image of Adam, certainly leads to returning to a "God without passions or parts".  Mormonism is an incarnational theology, Adam Kadmon is inherently adoptionistic.  Orson could have been concerned about the difficulties of reconciling adoptionistic view of Adam with a material view of the Godhead.    This view of Adam would have presented no problem for early Christians that supported adoptionism.  Moreover, religions like Judaism, Islam, Druze and Hermetic Christianity are adoptionistic in their view of all prophets strongly disbelieving in even the possibility of an incarnational theology in the orthodox Christian sense.  So Orson's objection is understandable.


See also:

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Paula Kirby on Atheism

I couldn't resist reposting this essay from the  Hibernia Times (Ireland's newspaper)

Here is a link to the originals: part1 part2

Everything below this line is Paula's


By Paula Kirby

Until 2003 I was a devout Christian. And I mean devout. I believed absolutely, and my faith was central to my life at that time. Various clergy thought I had a calling to “the ministry”; one even suggested I might have a vocation to be a nun. Now I am an atheist: the kind of atheist who is predictably referred to by religious apologists as “outspoken” or “militant.” So what happened?
What happened was four little words: “How do I know?”

One of the things that had struck me during my Christian years was just how many different Christianities there are. Not just the vast number of different sects and denominations (over 38,000 by one reckoning), but the huge amount of difference between individual Christians of the same sect or denomination, too. 

The beliefs and attitudes of an evangelical, biblical, literalist Christian compared with a liberal Christian are so wildly different that we might almost be dealing with two completely different religions – as I discovered from personal experience when moving from a liberal church in the south of England to the Presbyterian depths of the Scottish Highlands back in 2000.

Like every other Christian I have ever known, I had clear ideas about the kind of God I believed in and, on the basis of those ideas, I accepted certain bits of Christian dogma while utterly rejecting others. Again, let me stress: this is par for the course. In practice faith is always a pick-and-mix affair: believers emphasise those bits that sit comfortably with them whilst mostly ignoring those bits that do not, or concocting elaborate interpretations to allow them to pretend they do not mean what they actually say. So this was the question I faced up to in 2003: What was there to suggest that the version of Christianity I believed in was actually real? Was there any better evidence for the version I accepted than there was for the versions I did not?

The Bible could not help me. Both kinds of Christian – the ultra-conservative and the ultra-liberal – find abundant support for their views in the Bible provided they cherry-pick enough (and, of course, they do just that, filing the bits that don’t suit their case under the convenient headings of “Metaphor” or “Mystery”). Tradition was not reliable, either: a false belief does not become true simply through having been held through many generations.

So what else was there? A Roman Catholic I was debating with once argued: “To those who say there is no proof, there is the question of the numinous. I know there is a God, I have a relationship with him and spend time in meditative prayer on a daily basis.” Perhaps that’s where the answer lay?

Well, of course, I thought I had a personal relationship with God, too. I, too, spent time with him in meditative prayer every day. And as a result, I not only “knew” there was a god; I “knew” what that god was like. I didn’t believe – I really thought I knew.

Just about all the Christians I came into contact with “knew” there was a god, too. They, too, spent time in meditative prayer with him on a daily basis. And as a result, they, too, “knew” what God was like. So what did that knowledge tell us about him? How reliable were these personal relationships when it came to establishing the truth about God?

Some of us, on the basis of our relationship with God, knew him to be loving, compassionate, generous, always reaching out to us, pitying our mistakes rather than condemning them. Others, on the basis of their relationship with God, knew him to be angry, jealous, punitive.

Some of us knew that God had more important things to worry about than our sex lives; others knew that human sexual impurity was deeply offensive to him.
Some of us knew that God wanted us to respond to other people’s shortcomings with tolerance and forbearance and humility; others knew that he wanted sin to be made an example of, to be held up and publicly rebuked.
Some of us knew that God was offended by conspicuous consumption when so many people had nothing; others knew that God showered wealth along with other good things on those of whom he approved.
Some of us knew that God saw all religions as different expressions of people’s yearning for him; others knew that traditional, orthodox Christianity was the only route to him.
Some of us knew that the devil was just a myth to explain the existence of evil; others knew that the devil was very real and a genuine threat to our souls.
Some of us knew that there was no way God could ever allow such a thing as hell; others knew that hell was very much a part of God’s ordained order.
We all knew we were right, and we all based that knowledge on the personal relationship we had with him. How could any of us possibly be wrong?
What was striking about these observations was that those of us whose personalities led us to embrace the world and other people in a spirit of openness, generosity, warmth and tolerance “knew” that God did the same. And those who lacked the confidence for that, and consequently saw the world as threatening and evil and bad, “knew” that God saw it that way, too.

This is why subjective experience cannot tell us anything about God. Knowing what kind of god someone believes in tells us a great deal about that person – but nothing whatsoever about the truth or otherwise of the existence of any god at all.

And this brings us to something very important about atheism. Atheism is not in itself a belief. Few atheists would be so bold as to declare the existence of any god at all utterly impossible. Atheism is, quite simply, the position that it is absurd to believe in, much less worship, a deity for which no valid evidence has been presented. Atheism is not a faith: on the contrary, it is the refusal to accept claims on faith.

Atheists recognize that we need evidence in order to come to reliable conclusions about reality and that, so far, those who claim there is a god have signally failed to provide it. And atheists care about reality: not what it might be comforting to believe, or what has traditionally been believed, or what we have been instructed to believe. And this focus on reality, far from diminishing our experience of life, as so many religious people imagine, actually makes our lives all the richer: once you have faced up to the reality that there is no evidence to suggest there is another life after this one, it becomes all the more important to live this finite life to the full, learning and growing, and caring for others, because this is their only life, too, and there is no reason to believe there will be heavenly compensation for their earthly sufferings.

An atheist life, well lived, leads to the only kind of afterlife there is any evidence for whatsoever: the immortality of living on in the fond memories of those who loved us.


Many Christians don’t wish to question their beliefs, of course. Many genuinely feel to get something from their faith which they fear they would lose without it. For many believers, faith is a comfort: they find comfort in the thought of not really dying, of being reunited with loved ones in an afterlife, of a benign and powerful being watching over them and “working all things for the good.”

Someone who derives comfort from such thoughts may well prefer not to question the truth of them too closely. Besides, in a community where the majority are religious and censorious of non-belief, there is huge social pressure to conform.

Another reason lies in the lamentable fact that even now, in 2011, lack of scientific understanding is the norm in many societies. Not only do most people not understand even the basics of science themselves; they often have no idea of the huge range of questions that science really has begun to shed light on. People unschooled in scientific knowledge or methodology may quite genuinely be baffled about why there is “something rather than nothing,” or how life could possibly have arisen from non-life and then developed into the vast array of forms we see around us, and be unable to conceive of any answer other than God.

So there are reasons for not questioning belief that many Christians may themselves be fully conscious of and even happy with. However, I would suggest that there are other reasons, too: reasons arising from the way Christianity actively manipulates its followers and suppresses the natural spirit of enquiry.

The first is Christianity’s emphasis on faith. Faith is the acceptance of claims for which there is no good evidence; when someone invites you to take something on faith, they are actively telling you not to challenge it, not to question it, not to enquire whether it is really true: they are telling you to simply accept it on their say-so. And this “accepting it on their say-so” is at the very heart of Christianity.

It is the only absolute requirement for salvation: that you accept — on faith —
that Jesus died for your sins and took the punishment for them on your behalf. Faith is incompatible with genuine questioning. The moment you begin to question faith-claims, you are told you must stop, that to continue will be to lose your faith. And this is a dire threat indeed, for in Christianity everything you hope for is dependent on faith — on simply taking someone’s word for it, on simply accepting a particular set of claims as true.

Churches certainly pay lip-service to asking questions, of course; but never doubt that there are limits to the questions that are acceptable. “Does this verse mean this or does it mean that?”: this kind of question — the unthreatening kind that stays within approved boundaries — is smiled upon. But be careful not to voice questions that suggest doubt! That question the truth of Christian dogma!

It is no coincidence, I would suggest, that Doubting Thomas is second only to Judas in the Recalcitrant Disciple stakes.

Closely linked with faith is authority. It is there in the structures of all churches, but explicitly so in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which claims infallibility for the pope when speaking on matters of dogma. (How does he know he’s infallible on these matters? How do you?) Authority reinforces the demand for blind faith, insists that you remain in your role of passive recipient of priestly wisdom. But these claims to authority are not always overt: they are also concealed within the very structure of church services. You are told when to sit, when to kneel, when to stand; when to pray, when to sing, when to say Amen, when to be silent. And you are told, in the creed, in the hymns, from the pulpit, what you are required to believe. There is no discussion, no Q&A, no opportunity to ask, “But how do you know?” Church services require congregations to be passive and unquestioning. (Have you ever wondered why the Church puts so much emphasis on obedience?)

All this is reinforced through ritual. When was the last time you actively stopped to think about how you drive? Unless you are newly qualified, the answer is almost certainly so long ago that you cannot remember it. After a while driving becomes automatic, reflexive, something you do without much conscious thought. This is what happens when we do something over and over again: we stop noticing the details. And churches — especially those, like the Roman Catholic Church, with set liturgies — exploit this to the full. In service after service there is the same rhythm, the same pattern, the same order of the individual components. The effect? We can switch our brains off; we don’t need to think; we are lulled into a state of passivity in which the words wash over us and we barely even register them. If you don’t believe me, see if you can recite — without looking! — the third verse of your favourite hymn. Or see how much you remember of the content of last Sunday’s sermon.

The combination of the insistence on faith, authority and endlessly repeated ritual all combine to lull our brains into unquestioning, passive acceptance. And as if this weren’t enough, believers’ confidence in their own judgement and ability to deal with life on their own is constantly undermined by the teaching that their every success is down to God’s goodness, their every failure firmly down to their own weakness.

Yet there still remains one more weapon in the Church’s armoury: a powerful weapon, a desperate weapon; you might even say a diabolical weapon. That weapon is hell. “Accept our authority; accept our claims on faith; believe and don’t doubt — or burn for all eternity.” How many generations of children have been psychologically scarred by this obscenity? How many adults still harbour lingering fears that this sadistic fabrication might just be true? How many cling to their faith for fear of eternal torment if they don’t? And how much must the Church fear the act of questioning, if it has to resort to such monstrous and perverted threats in order to deter you from doing it?

The forces arrayed against the believer who dares to question, dares to challenge, are formidable indeed. Small wonder that many believers never truly stop to reflect on their beliefs from the perspective of asking whether they are really true.

And yet an increasing number of us are doing just that. Increasingly we are shaking off the hobgoblins of belief, and in so doing we are discovering the joys of a life where no question is off-limits and where we no longer have to make do with pseudo-answers based in faith, authority or threats.

Abandoning religious faith is like waking after a deep sleep. Good morning! It’s a beautiful day…

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Rock-paper-scissors of Apologetics

So I tried another round of Catholic apologetics and yet again I'm discovering that the Catholic apologetic falls completely apart in the face of typical Baptist counter arguments. On the other hand I can't help but notice how quickly your more traditional Protestants, with a poorly thought out position on sola scriptura get tied in knots by the Catholic apologetic.

So I've come up with this theory based that apologetics have a big circle similar to rock-paper-scissors.
  • Catholic apologetics tie Calvinism in knots.
  • Calvinism biblically refutes Arminian credobaptists.
  • Arminian credobaptists doesn't let Catholic apologetics get off the ground.  
Most modern Catholic apologetics came from the continent, they aren't American and don't deal with the sorts of claims that a Baptist would make. I've tried again and again to see if Catholics have refutations to basic Baptist theology and so far it appears they don't.

There really are about 5 principle arguments in Catholic apologetic.
  1. Sola scriptura is not taught in the bible, in fact the bible teaches a historic church.
  2. Protestants have to accept tradition on the question of canon and quite often on creed.  
  3. The Reformation failed to produce a robust orthodoxy.  That is sola scriptura doesn't produce a unified belief and any basis for a true church i.e. the "there are hundreds of Protestant denominations..."  
  4. The key arguments some reformers had with the Catholic church: physical presence,  Marian rites, infant baptism, special authority of bishops/pope go back very early.  So the apostasy could not have been near the time of the reformation.   
  5. Church authority is non-severable, the church cannot fall into apostasy.  The  gates of hell shall not prevail....    
To see how these arguments work consider them against, say a  Presbyterian.  The Presbyterian wants to tie himself tightly to historic Christianity.  He doesn't want to put himself in the same boat as fundamentalists, Mormons and Adventists.  So he ends up having to argue all sorts of subtle and disprovable theories. He wants there to be some absolute sense in which he is Christian and a Jehovah's Witnesses is not even though the Jehovah's Witnesses is at least as committed to an accurate read of scripture.  Which means he has to grant historic creeds authority, but the creeds are far later than many other doctrines he would reject and he's off to the races of slitting his own throat.  

The Baptist response to those arguments is easy.  In order:
  1. References to the church in the bible only apply to a local church.  There is no further entity, thus no broad ecclesiology.   The only church Jesus founded was the Jerusalem church, the one church he destroyed, to prevent the idolatry of tying a material church to God.  
  2. Baptists reject the idea that canon comes from tradition.  Rather they believe God raises up a bible for his faithful in their languages.  So for example, the Wulfila, the Gothic bible, doesn't have the book of Acts yet most Baptists believe the Wulfila to have been the legitimate scriptures for that community.  
  3. Baptists believe in a regenerate church.  There will never be a broadly believed orthodoxy. 
  4. They grant that the errant theology was early, but because they aren't tied to any churches beyond the 1st century they are able to clearly look at the history and see the origins accurately.  Baptists, believe that the apostasy started early, almost always by the 2nd century.     The Reformation didn't reconstruct the church, the Protestant churches are just as bad, rather it created the room for further reform.   
  5. Many Baptists do believe that the Catholic church fell into a deep apostasy.  They often believe in a faithful remnant existing inside or outside the church and quite often a restoration in the last 500 years.  
The big difference is that the Baptist makes no claim to be in a qualitatively different situation than the Adventist or Jehovah's Witnesses; they believe themselves to be in a quantitatively different situation.   Salvation comes from asking for Jesus's intercession.  What exact level of understanding is needed, is unclear.  

I suspect ultimately this is a short term phenomena, mostly having to do with English speakers and the internet.  Most of the internet Catholics spend their time debating the internet Protestant apologists that are reformed, James White types.  So this analysis may already be dead in the Spanish speaking community.  In Latin America the real battle is between Pentecostalism and Western Rite Catholicism, the traditional apologetic won't work for the reasons above.  Pentecostals also believe in "Landmarism-lite".  

So... my question to the internet is... does anyone know what's happening in the Latin American apologetics community?  What's happening in Spanish?  


See also:
  • A direct Baptist / Catholic debate: Campbell / Purcell debate.
  • In terms of addressing the argument of government, which is the core of the Neumann apologetic: Mell's book on church government and  Savage's book on church government. More books of this type can be found on the Baptist History Homepage.
  • Remember Lot's Wife, an example of the Baptist apologetic in response to an article lementing the disunity of the reformation.  
  • For a Baptist understanding of church history an easy to read and famous presentation to familiarize yourself with the Baptist mindset is Ellen White's Conflict of the Ages Volume 5 The Great Controversy. For material about the early church, Acts of the apostles (Vol 4) which discusses the early church. Especially her last few chapters of this volume address Catholic claims.  As an aside these books are well written and a good read so, this would be where I'd start. 
  • A short introduction which contrast baptist theology with liturgical churches: Why be Baptist.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Sects to the Reformation

This image is large and may not be laying out clearly on your browser.  Try clicking on the image to see it better, and magnify if you need to.  Or click on this link to download or view isolated.    I had originally put this image together up to about the year 1000 for a debate on Christian origins.  I got inspired to expand when I had to discuss origins of the Reformation and ideas from it.  I think this is a useful reference post, and also might lead to some good discussion.

Because the reformation is so huge, I had to limit scope.  At this point the chart covers the origins of the those sects that came to America from England, the English reformation and development.  It doesn't include the minor dissenting sects that don't appear to have had influence on America.

Arrows are for strong influence or descent, these sects are interacting with one another and passing ideas between them just as religions today do.  Coloring of the arrows is to help reduce visual complexity, and it doesn't mean anything beyond that.  Where possible I've tried to include a sample work in parenthesis for each sect making it clear how I'm using the term and also demonstrating at a glance the evolution in thought.  It is also for the early part, letting the chart do double duty explicating the origins of the bible.

In terms of the colors of the circles:

Salmon is for groups that are Jewish sects.  They may have Christian aspects but they are not yet meaningfully Christian and are in some sense fundamentally Jewish or Samaritan.
Light Blue are proto-Christianities.
Yellow are full blown alternate Christianities, from ancient times.  "Gnosticism" used in the religious sense.
Purple is for groups that I can meaningfully call Catholic, western or eastern rite.
Pink  groups that broke away Catholicism. Sects that I would agree are "schismatic".
Dark Olive Green non-Christian religions.
Yellow-Green is for non-Christian groups with strong Christian influence.
Muddy Pink I'm using for Hermetic Christianity.
Dark-Brown for proto-Protestantism
Red-Brown for Protestantism
Magenta for the non-creedal sects of the Radical Reformation and their descendants 

A few things worth noting.

  1. Christianity originated from a variety Jewish and Samaritan cults, which were not part of the mainstream nor the branch that survived.  
  2. Catholicism represents a coming together of various groups.  An early partial consensus, not some sort of original revelation.
  3. Christianity has always been highly diverse.  
  4. The elements of the Protestant Reformation are very old.  In a way, the Cathari and the Beguines are the father and mother of the reformation, with Christian Humanism playing an important role.  Everything develops from the 13th century combination of:
    • primitivism
    • a desire for a lay church
    • a theological neo-gnosticism lite
    trying to fight their way to the surface for the next 300 years. While the specifics in classical Landmarkism are a bit off, the general idea of Christian primitivism are quite correct.   
In terms of remaining issues there are two that bother me.  The first is that the Catholic section is terrible.   Originally the chart just covered Catholic development up to the ancient world, so I only needed a 1/2 dozen Catholic sects.   This one covers Catholicism in the middle ages, so to do it justice I'd probably need over a 100 sects and the diagram would be a sea of purple with a border in the other colors.  I think top priority for the next round, is a full treatment of the origins of the Eastern Sects.

The other is I'm not sure about the Ebionites and the Elkasaites.  If anyone has any suggestions there about the relationship please jump in.  I think I'm going to need to jump into some Dead Sea Scrolls material to work this out.


See also: