(This is part two of a (potentially) 10-part series on my response to the Alpha Course. Part one, with an explanation of what all this is, is found here: Explore the Meaning of…Bitten Tongues.)
(Post-pre Script: I’m finishing this at 3am and don’t plan on re-reading to proof-read, so please forgive errors and typos.)
So, night two. The first night I walked out with a thinly repressed feeling of ire and frustration. The second night felt like relaxing into the second half of a root canal. You know there’s no escape and it must be done, so you just relax into the Novocaine masking the pain, and allow yourself to float until it’s over.
OK, that was harsh; it wasn’t that bad, I just like the analogy. 🙂 Let’s just say it wasn’t as bad as last week, but I still had face pain from keeping from eye-rolling all night. It’s a few days since that night, so my memory is a little hazy, but here’s what I can recall from my notes:
So Nicky opened up this night’s video with a fatuous attempt to use an old George Carlin (or is it Sam Kennison?) comedy bit about how odd it is that people wear crosses. It’d be like wearing an electric chair or a hangman’s noose. He was trying to make a point as to why Christians revere the cross, which is this night’s theme of explaining why, allegedly, Jesus, allegedly, died as a gift to us all. But his reasoning (which are as old as apologetics itself) is barbaric (despite trying to deny it) and illogical.
Now, here’s a problem many apologists have and Nicky is no different: he conflates being unethical with “sin.” Sinning is a purely religious term which means doing something against god. Using god’s name in vain is a sin, it’s not unethical. However, according to the bible, selling your daughter into slavery, murdering a rape victim, beating you slave such that he doesn’t die until two days later, those are not sins. But they’re, according to our evolved morality far beyond the bible’s, quite unethical. If it makes god unhappy, it’s a sin, and that’s completely divorced from the concept of ethics which is how humans judge each others’ behaviors.
Nicky’s example of how he is a human who has “sinned” was how when he uses the bike lane, cars that exploit the lane are terrible; but when he’s in the car and uses the bike lane, he feels justified. Well, Nicky, yes, that’s unethical behavior. And yes, all humans from time to time act unethically. Now isn’t that the clever trick religion has learned: take something all humans will likely do now and then, act unethically, and conflate it with “sin,” and then convince people that your punishment for being human is damnation unless you buy what they and they alone are selling.
But here’s another thought: if this god did make humanity, then he made humans to be unethical from time to time, or, “sinful.” If you believe in an all-knowing god, and a creator god of everything, there’s no way to get around the fact that that requires that this god knew from the very beginning that the humans he was making were going to “sin against him” and give him justification for judging humanity “unworthy” of “eternal life.” He set the game up, rigged it, and tries to convince us it’s our doing. Like the mob boss who sets up a protection racket, knows you can’t pay by his terms, forces you buy in, and then says, “You’re makin’ me break your legs; dis is your fault, ya know.”
The apologist will usually reply that it was humanity that brought sin into the world, and you send yourself to hell — god doesn’t do it. Uhm, yeah. You have an all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe and everything else, except he’s not responsible for (a) the humans he created to be fallible and capable of giving in to sin, (b) a world that suffers from the effects of sin, (c) the rules he set up to judge people by, and you still want him to be thought of as all-powerful and all-knowing? All that hand-waving must get painful.
Which raises the question, how did “sin” get into the world? If you’re reasonable and you accept the fact of evolution and that Genesis is all allegory and just-so stories, you have a hard time explaining The Problem of Evil and why all humans are sinful without a god who directly made us that way. And if you believe in the completely impossible Genesis story, you actually have more explaining to do! (a). Why does an all-powerful god need a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the first place? (b). Why does such a deity need to even put it smack-dab in the middle of the Garden so he can tell his innocent and naive humans “don’t think of a white elephant”? (c). How does an all-knowing deity not see what happened coming? (d). Why does this all-loving, all-wise, all-knowing being blame and punish his creations, who he should know their psychology intimately, for being so without any knowledge of good or evil as he created, for being so innocent and naive and to not understand that disobeying god is…evil? (I rephrase: Humans without any knowledge of good and evil by definition do not understand that it is “bad” to not do what god says. Ergo, they are not deserving of such punishment — particularly when it’s someone else (i.e. their creator) who is responsible for having made them so ridiculously innocent as to not understand that,)
All these facts lead inexorably to one conclusion, should one believe in the Creation story: Yahweh had to know exactly what would happened and in fact planned it to go exactly as it did. Any way you slice it, the god that is sad and distraught that there’s sin in the world is ultimately responsible for it. This is important later.
At some point Nicky mentions that going the bad stuff is more “addictive” to him than the good stuff. It’s statements like that that make me very wary of “good Christians”. He, of course, was trying to imply that evil is addictive to all people and you have to work hard to be good. This is balderdash. There are countless examples so expansive as to be absurd to even try to quantify them of how humans do good on a constant basis. All humans (aside from psychopaths) regardless of their religious beliefs. Humans share, even necessities one usually assumes we’re too selfish to do anything but horde and steal. We cooperate. We love! Yes, we do unethical things, but the idea that without Christian faith we love evil too much is disproven by the fact that 5 out of 6.5 billion people in the world are not Christians, and yet live perfectly ethical, happy, cooperative, social lives. One only needs to point to two places to see evidence: the northern European countries like the Netherlands and Sweden, and American prisons. The Nordic countries are the most agnostic/atheist countries in the world, and by all measures of social well-being and happiness, they rank among the top in the world. And, while non-thesists make up 16-20% of Americans, they represent less than 1% of American prison populations. Hmm, seems as though there’s something amiss with this implication that one needs Jesus to avoid being bad.
OK, if things aren’t already barbarous and illogical in the Yahweh-created-world theory in light of the existence of “sin,” the solution magnifies and complicates the problem even further. Here we come to the topic of substitutional atonement, or, as Nicky puts it, “self-substitution” of God.
I have to apologize; I know my tone is very cynical and insulting, but when discussing these things which, to an outsider, sounds insane, it’s hard not to be snarky. And I fear I may even get worse from here. Who was it that said, “What we call one person insane for believing, we call ‘religion’ when enough people believe it.” The Christian concept of substitutional atonement is fundamentally cruel, illogical, unjust, on top of the base that we are to blame for the failings of an omni-everything being, like the battered wife who says “I made him beat me up.” The way Yahweh has set sin and forgiveness up, it’s the sociopathic husband who says with raised fist, “Now see what you did? You gone and made me hit you.” And I’m shamed I used to believe this stuff, lock, stock and barrel.
I don’t… I try hard not to think negatively on the people who believe orthodox Christianity, as our brains are simply evolutionarily wired to accept what we’re told and not think critically. Doubt and questioning are learned skills that don’t come naturally, and it took me a long time to learn those skills. Not only that, but it took a long time to actually accept the findings of those skills and not use them selectively, avoiding my own beliefs. I’m hard on the concepts and the ideas of religion for their cruelty, bigotry, ignorance, because they deserve it. The people who believe it are innocent victims, not knowing perpetrators. Unless, one actively chooses to not question what they believe and why, and intentionally ignores what reason tells them. But I’ve digressed enough — back to atonement.
So, according to Christianity, because we all are sinners (forget how and why we got to be that way [hand wave]), we have separated ourselves from a relationship with god and are not capable of everlasting life. This makes baby Jesus cry. Now, let’s play a game: You’re god. You created the universe, you’re all-knowing, all-powerful, unimaginably wise, and all-loving and benevolent. Here’s the problem you face: The thinking beings you designed are flawed and doing bad things that make you upset. Do you,
(a) Say, “Oops” and then recreate the universe so that humans aren’t capable of horrific acts of extreme violence and cruelty, there’s no need for perdition in the world, and that they all feel your presence and know you will, in such a way as they all still have “free will,” and because you’re all-knowing you can see all possibilities and know exactly how to do it, and then all humans can enjoy everlasting life and you aren’t forced to have to bitch-slap most of them into eternal death and damnation because they burned your chicken pot pie; or,
(b) You wait somewhere between 2 million to 4,000 years (depending on if you used evolution or you willed humanity into existence) of sin and suffering, incapable or unwilling to do anything about it, before you’re upset enough to snap your fingers and forgive all because hey! you can at will, oops, I mean, send yourself down as someone not yourself, to be cruelly killed as a masochistic ritual blood sacrifice to yourself in order to convince yourself to…what exactly? Allow people to simply be capable of forgiveness… of being flawed human born of a faulty design and the mistake of (a fictional) someone 6,000 years ago?
Now, I’m just a silly human with limited wisdom and intelligence, but even I can see how inane and ridiculous this setup is and could conceive of many better ways of doing things where everyone, including baby Jesus, could be happy.
So, there’s the Christian claim: we’re all criminals, and god-not-god paid the “price,” [wave hands] and presto-chango, we’re all free! …to continue being flawed and sinful humans but now with a chance to be privileged in ways the great majority of people living on this Earth now and throughout history will never have the chance of because they were unlucky enough to be born in a time and place where they’ll never hear of Jesus. I’m awestruck by the wisdom.
Nicky decides to confuse the issue (?!) by trying to explain how this setup isn’t barbarous. Because, you know, having an innocent suffer for someone else is cruel (that “something inside him” must have gotten through) and Nicky sees that. So, he tells this story of a group of Auschwitz prisoners who are going to be starved to death because of some other prisoners’ crime (I think escaping?) And a Catholic (priest?) volunteered to take the place of a Jew who had a family, and this is like Jesus… taking our place… for our sins… OK. Nicky, seriously. Do you not even think about what you’re saying? Here’s what your Auschwitz story is saying:
Some people are in prison, and considering it’s a Nazi prison, they’re likely in there for no legitimate crime but simply because they were born non-Aryan. We can assume they’re all innocent to begin with! Some prisoners try to escape the evil, so other innocent people are sent to suffer by the evil ones because other innocents revolted against the evil. And another innocent, who actually is looked upon by god, er, the Nazis, as equally evil as the other prisoners, takes one of their places. So, god is Hitler, humans are unjustly incarcerated people who were just born unfortunate, and Jesus is someone equally guilty in the eyes of Nazi/god. OK, I don’t blame Christianity for this cluster-f* of an analogy — this is all Nicky’s idiocy.
Anyway, somehow this is supposed to convince us that an innocent being tortured and killed for someone else’s crime is not barbaric. Yeah, try again.
And, later in the video, he does!
Nicky tries another tack and uses another analogy. This one is a story of two friends, one becomes a good judge and the other to a life of crime. The criminal one day goes before the judge, his friend. The judge has to sentence his friend for justice’s sake, but then comes down and pays the fee himself.
Nice story. But let’s look at it with a bit more real-world equivalence and show why this is barbaric and not justice at all. Say, in the courtroom, you have a serial rapist-murderer. It’s proven beyond doubt he’s guilty. He’s sentenced, and per standard procedure, the family of all the victims are there in court to express how the convicted destroyed their lives, damaged them, created such suffering and pain. He’s sentenced not to a fine, like in Nicky’s story, but to the chair.
Now let’s say this innocent judge talked to his son. A boy who has done no wrong and who helps with charity. And he gets his son to take the convicted’s place so that he can let the guy go free.
Now, if you didn’t before, you can now see how substitutional atonement is barbaric. In no way would we ever consider this “justice.” We would consider this a mockery of justice and a cruelty beyond measure. Do you think the families, all the people this murderer harmed, would consider this outcome justice?
But Nicky tries to mitigate this inherent injustice by (a) making the innocent one the judge himself, and (b) the criminal someone only deserving of a fine. The “self-substitution” does nothing to reduce the fact that it’s inherently wrong to allow an innocent person to suffer in place of the person who actually committed the harm. More so if that person does not receive any punishment for their crimes at all. And yet, in the supposed reality of Christianity, we are all supposedly the equivalent of the raping murderer, for, according to Christianity, we are all destined by default, for simply being born, to eternal death/damnation. That’s not the punishment one gives someone who simply broke a window — that’s the kind of punishment you give a serial murderer. And according to Christianity, whether you’re kind and good person who simply never “accepted Jesus” or a psychopathic killer, you both have the same punishment.
Yes, Nicky, Christianity is indeed cruel and barbaric, and substitutional atonement only makes it worse, not better.
This “sacrifice” of perfectly innocent Jesus (wait a cotton-pickin’-minute, only 10 minutes ago Nicky brought up the Auschwitz story to somehow explain how sending an innocent man to pay for the crimes of another would be barbaric and so Jesus isn’t that… seriously, dude, listen to yourself sometime!) “reconciles us with God.” Well, that’s the claim. Nothing more than a lot of special pleading to explain how this is done — we’re just expected to believe that killing his-not-self allows us to not be forever worms in his sight. How nice of him.
(By the way, in the first gospel known to be written, Mark, Jesus never makes the case that he is himself god, just his son. In fact, the very concept of Jesus being God didn’t get to become accepted (forced) understanding until the Councils of Nicaea had to finally decide on the issue 400 years after the alleged events. And, in Matthew and even the psychedelic John, Jesus made many references to being not god, god being greater than him, and him going to sit at the right hand of god. Unless god finds it necessary to be god-not-god even in heaven….
According to Nicky, the result of the crucifixion is: “Sin is removed, power of sin broken, penalty is paid, reconciliation.” How exactly? [hand waving ensues] All he knows is that, “God loves us, but has to have justice.” See above for how this “love” god shows by blaming us for his own failures by sending all people by default into eternal death/damnation sits with me, and how nothing, nothing about this setup is even remotely just.
(Note also, that throughout this I commit what a lot of believers accuse atheists of being “hypocrites” for, by talking about god as if I believed he were real. I do that as a rhetorical device to critique the beliefs and arguments of the religion, not because I actually think he does exist but is a cruel psycho. Thankfully, the El/Elohim/El-shadai/Adonai/Yahweh pantheon of Hebrews-Canaanites as described in the bible is impossible.)
I have no problem dumping on Nicky and calling him out on his asshatery, because he deserves it. But the people in my group don’t. Oh, they say some pretty unthinking, credulous, irrational things, but only because they’ve been programmed since childhood to think that way and not deeply question. They’ve not allowed themselves to step out from their beliefs for a moment and truly examine them as if they were an outsider (thank you John W. Loftus). In other words, they know not what they do. (*eg*) Their hearts are in the right place. (Except for perhaps the woman who was afeared of the gay.) So, I have a hard time talking too much snarky smack about them.
(Snarky smack… New snarky smacks! They stay cynical in milk!)
And that’s also why I didn’t speak up in class for another week. Anything I say would be taken, even if not meant, as a challenge to their core beliefs and that’s not what they want (even if it’s what they should get!) And in their place of worship, surrounded by their supporters, they shouldn’t be expected to have to defend their beliefs to a virtual stranger interloper amongst them. Almost always, no…always in my experience, my conversations with believers end up with them very upset and calling me names (“Mr. Logic! You have no heart and only want to bring people down to your level of misery and unhappiness!”) because that’s their last resort usually. Of course, I can’t convince them that I have never been more happy and fulfilled and joyous since I took off the god-goggles (thank you Julia Sweeny) and stop believing things that just don’t make any rational sense.
Like what one person is group said: “It breaks his [God’s] heart the stuff his children do to each other.” Again, if you give this a moment of thought, you have no choice but to accept that an all-knowing and all-powerful god is impossible if he’s going to also be all-loving and feel terrible about molestation, rape, murder, torture, war, etc. etc. ad nauseum. God feels heart-broken, how do you think the girl who has to live a childhood of being regularly raped by a trusted family member feels? Or the women in the Congo who get an arm chopped off as a war tactic? Or the millions who needlessly painfully starve to death? A truly all-knowing, all-powerful god should have no problem coming up with a universe where, if we really must have our faith tested, can effectively do so without murder and rape and disease and perdition.
When this “problem of suffering” was brought up by someone in group, one very outspoken member offered an explanation in as erudite and certain a manner as I’ve ever heard: “stuff happens.” That’s the great explanation as to why people will die horrific deaths from cancer, Ebola, torture, war. “Stuff happens.” While this rationale completely undermines the concept of a God With a Plan, an all-knowing and powerful god, it’s also ironically true. The universe operates exactly as what one would imagine it operating if there were no all-loving, all-powerful intelligence behind it. The universe operates exactly like no one is at the helm, guiding things. (If there is, it’s an extremely cruel, evil, capricious and psychopathic or at least indifferent captain.) For there to be an involved, personal, caring god, there has to be a lot of hand waving and special pleading and rationalizing going on.
But probably an equally thoughtless (if sincere) statement made in groupo by someone, was the belief that once you become a Christian you become accountable for the things you do. I’m sorry, what? Are you saying we’re not accountable for our actions otherwise? 5 billion people in the world aren’t accountable?
Well, naturally, I assume she means accountable for all eternity by a security camera in the sky, not to each other and to society. Because as a non-believer, I can tell you, I am accountable to my wife, to my daughter who looks up to me and learns ethics and life-lessons from me. Accountable to my friends and family. Accountable to my society as represented by laws I obey and social norms I follow. And, I’m accountable to myself. I have my own sense of integrity and self-worth that I’m accountable to. We all are accountable in all these ways, regardless of our religious beliefs. Oddly, I find that it’s very often believers who tend to ignore or forget just how accountable they are to everyone and thing other than Sky Daddy.
Anyway, perhaps after a few sessions, after people get used to my being there, I may be able to make comments or offer questions in such a way as to not make the others feel under attack and overly defensive. Which may be hard. To believers, anyone who verbally questions belief is a “militant” and anyone who challenges Christian hegemony is attacking and persecuting Christianity.
I must say, that my wife spoke up a few times in group this week; but then, they know her and count her as one of them even though her comments were serious and fundamental challenges to Christian orthodoxy. She has the temerity to actually believe that Jesus may not be the only way to god, that people who don’t “accept Jesus” aren’t by default doomed to eternal death/damnation, and yet she still calls herself “Christian.” And because of that, she can express these truly heretical ideas that would have gotten her killed 600 years ago, and instead she gets a couple people in class expressing how much they appreciate that point of view. Which certainly points out just how much our sense of morality and ethics have evolved over the centuries.
…and makes me frustrated to no end that mos of America still chose to study and revere this book that advocates and condones slavery and genocide and racism and bigotry and intolerance and death as some great book of wisdom, much less revealed word of a perfect god! We as a species, and those in that study group room, are so much better than that!