Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A love based on fear and guilt?

A few weeks ago I attended a talk by an evangelist, and it did me a lot of good. But not in the way some of you might think. The evangelist was Peter Pollock, who in the 1960s played cricket for South Africa, but later started his own ministry.

I know Pollock meant well, but his talk was the typical conservative Christian narrative that I grew up with: the focus on hell and the devil; the belief that humans are by nature greedy and sinful; the degrading of reason and human achievement; and the claim that one cannot be truly happy without Jesus.

The talk got me thinking about evangelists in general. I'm convinced that they are successful because they manipulate (often unintentionally) two powerful emotions: shame and fear. The evangelist's technique is to make us feel shameful for simply being human, and this is often followed up by a reminder of hell, with the hope that if guilt won't motivate the audience to make a decision to follow Jesus, fear will.

Soon after leaving the faith, I used to respond to evangelists with trepidation, and later with anger. But this time, surprisingly, I did not experience any of these emotions. Instead, while I listened to Pollock, I felt a renewed sense of certainty as well as a great deal of relief. Certainty that I had definitely made the right decision to leave this brand of Christianity behind, and relief that this decision freed me from the burdens of conformity and servitude, which fundamentalism requires.

The talk did me a lot of good because it made me realise something extremely important: that evangelists no longer have any power over me, the power to instill fear or even to rouse anger. I think this is because, after six years of being non-religious, I no longer fear hell or any concept of god; and I no longer feel any guilt or shame for being human. Without these prerequisites, there is nothing within me that the evangelist can latch onto.

But more importantly, I believe that love enhances human dignity. What kind of love is the evangelist advocating if he or she has to manipulate and scare people into heaven? If this is God's love – a love motivated by shame, guilt and fear – then I'm not interested.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Genesis 2

The following piece was written by Bruce Murphy at Humanist Dad. I think it captures quite well the metaphysical naturalist's argument that scientific knowledge has slowly pushed God (in terms of being an explanation for things that we observe) into the fringes of the unknown.

In the beginning, we knew nothing so the answer was always, God.

Then, we began to ask questions. We prayed but God never replied. So, again we said, the answer is God.

It came to pass one day when a person had a question and, instead of asking God, they decided to conduct a test. The answer, strangely, was not God.

It came to pass that more people asked more questions and did not ask God for the answer. They created tests and experiments and found more answers that did not end with God.

Soon, God no longer made mountains or made babies. God did not cause the stars to shine or apples to fall. More questions and more experiments meant that God was no longer the only answer. It seemed that God was never the answer.

It is here where Science was born, and God, became god.

I think this represents a view that science and religion are somehow 'opposite' to each other, as if advances in one decreases the strength of the other. This works from the premise that religion is dependent on God being the explanation for natural phenomena. But do theists share this premise? Does one's faith in God depend, in some way, on the perceived role of God in the natural world? Or can one still have faith, even if God no longer seems to be involved in the day-to-day running of the universe?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Homosexual marriage: I would like to know your thoughts

Sweden has become the latest country to legalise homosexual marriage. This makes seven countries in total that have extended marital rights to same sex couples. The more I think about this issue, the more I wonder why it manages to cause so much controversy.

I can understand why certain religious groups are against it, but I still struggle to understand why these groups would want to impose their own view of marriage on the rest of society. South Africa legalised homosexual marriage in December 2006, and there was much debate in the media while the Constitutional Court was working towards this decision. The most common dissenting argument I heard was that marriage is ordained by God in Genesis to be only between a man and a woman. I understand this argument, but it doesn't work because, as I argued in a previous blog post, society does not consist solely of Christians; there are many citizens who do not believe in, or abide by, the Bible, and thus we should not expect them to live by biblical teachings. This seems obvious; after all, as a Christian you are not expected to live by the commands of another religion, such as Islam, for example.

I would like to ask a question, directed towards those who are against the legalisation of same sex marriage. Why are you so concerned about this? I mean, by legalising homosexual marriage, nobody is stopping heterosexuals from marrying each other; in South Africa, heterosexual Christians can still marry when they like, who they like, and in the manner of their choosing. If two men (or two women) want the state to legally recognise their commitment to one other, how does this harm you in any way? I would like to understand more of your thinking around this issue.

Survival of the fittest (or most ethical)?

"Life is flight, and the strongest wins. All civilization does is hide the blood and cover up the hate with pretty words!"
"Your civilization, perhaps. Ours hides nothing. It is all plain . . . We follow one law, only one, the law of human evolution."
"The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!"
"Yes; and the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical. You see, we have neither prey nor enemy, on Anarres. We only have one another. There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness."

- Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed, pg 185

I've always enjoyed well written science fiction that explores issues of philosophy, religion, and what it means to be human. Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed is a novel about two civilisations: the planet of Urras, a society based on democracy and capitalism, and the planet Anarres, a society that functions successfully without laws or government. The quoted passage above, a debate between two people from each of these worlds, tackles the creationist argument that the theory of evolution teaches that "might makes right" and that the only correct way to behave as human beings is to trample on the weak.

Not only is such an argument an example of the naturalistic fallacy, but as the quote above clearly shows, the fittest are not necessarily those who are the most violent or domineering. As far as I understand, those organisms that are the strongest (or fittest), in the context of evolutionary theory, are those who are the most successful in passing along their genes to the next generation. And what better environment to successfully bear children than in a stable, peaceful society based on a common code of ethics.

Unexplainable doesn't mean supernatural

When I mention or write about the fact that I doubt miracle accounts, some people respond by sharing a personal story of how they, or someone they know, was miraculously healed from cancer, paralysis, or some other debilitating ailment. They then often end by asking: "Kevin, how do you explain that?", as if my possible lack of an explanation somehow strengthens their case for a supernatural answer. And I admit that when it comes to some of the personal, sincere stories I have heard about miraculous healings, I have no concrete explanations to offer. But does this fact strengthen the case for the supernatural? I don't think it does.

As explained in this video, someone who argues that something has a supernatural cause because it can't be explained is basically saying: "I don't have an explanation, therefore I have an explanation". Not only is this is contradictory, but this argument also uses human ignorance to strengthen the case for the supernatural. And this can't work, because any unexplainable event can have a myriad of possible, imagined causes, and each of these can be equally valid if we only appeal to ignorance. I can just as well argue that our inability to explain a miraculous healing lends support to the claim that it was caused by invisible aliens from Betelgeuse. Thus, at face value, an unexplainable event – such as a miraculous healing – should not be considered a supernatural event. Rather, we should label an unexplainable event as an unexplainable event; no more, no less.

There are some who claim to have evidence of miraculous healings, either as video footage, medical reports, or X-rays. But even if these sources are sound, they can't be used as evidence for God or the supernatural, but only as evidence that something unexplained happened. Because such evidence can only eliminate known natural explanations.

I think that in order for us to raise the status of a miraculous healing from 'unexplainable' to the more substantial 'supernatural', the person making the miracle claim will need take an additional step to eliminate unknown explanations, natural or otherwise. This can be done by providing evidence of a causal link between a specific supernatural entity and the event in question. This is more difficult, I think, because a person will first have to show evidence that the supernatural entity exists in the first place, and then provide some explanation of how this invisible entity is able to manipulate flesh and bone.

So, as an atheist, I might not be able to explain instances of miraculous healing, but this doesn't mean that such events have a supernatural cause.