Does God guide us?

(This is part 6 of my, a non-believer’s, reaction to The Alpha Course, an introductory course into Christianity. The beginning is here, and the previous entry, part 5, is here.)

I’m going to try something new this time and write my reaction less than 5 days after the event. Like, the next day, maybe. Well, I’ve started it the day after session 6, but I have recordings of Stargate: Universe and Caprica calling me….

(Update: I failed. See mid-way for a bonus Interlude.)

How Does God Guide Us, Nicky attempts to explain in this session. In general, this was a session full of special pleading and bad rationalizations. Which is a shame, because Nicky seems like a real nice guy, but his logic and critical thinking skills are nearly non-existent.

He starts by telling us that the Bible is a clear-cut explanation of what God’s will is. Nevermind that the Bible is neither clear-cut nor direct, and is responsible for a great many bloody conflicts among Christians over how the Bible should be interpreted. The book has been translated and re-translated into English alone scores of times, each one with some significant differences in literal meanings let alone what someone can infer from them. And countless denominations of the one religion have branched off with different interpretations of key passages. Like I mentioned last essay, putting your instructions in the form of a book written by many authors is probably the least wise method of communicating to your loved children, that I can think of.

For an example of how the Bible clearly indicates God’s will, Nicky states the Bible states that “marriage is for life.” (Interestingly, evangelical and conservative Christians have the highest divorce rates, more than any other Christian group, and far more than non-believers. Guess they didn’t get the memo about marriage being forever?) But, as you can see here, the Bible, both old and new T., have instruction for divorce. Plus, polygamy and concubines (consensual and non-consensual sex-slaves) is the norm among the holy men of God. So, you know, marriage for life, one-man-one-woman, not too clear. Plus, I guess it’s not adultery of it’s your concubine, so, you know, loopholes.

Nicky states that as you read the Bible, God will bring pertinent verses to mind — especially if you read the Bible daily. Well, duh. If you’re reading the Bible daily, you’re going to hit upon verses pretty regularly that you can apply to your life. Heck, you could be reading a portion about the history of one of the kings of Israel, and there could be a verse that has nothing to do with general instruction or philosophy, but if you want, you can apply it to your life. The Bible is one giant Rorschach test, there’s so much in there talking about everything, like a horoscope you can kludge anything to fit with your life.

In fact, here’s a test: I’m going to randomly pick three verses and see what they say about me.

1. 2 Corinthians 12:16 “But be it so, I did not burden you: nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile.”

Well, let’s see. Thinking about this in my own life, from a Christian believer’s perspective, I could say that no matter how clever I think I am, God, like Paul, is crafty and can see through my walls and hiding. I should not be so prideful.

2. Daniel 4:25 “that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field; you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will.”

That my pride, my following my own will and path, keeps me in a self-imposed exile from God’s glory. And God will keep me in the wilderness until I have humbled myself and am thankful for what I have.

3. James 2:13 “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Hmm, particularly ambiguous and seemingly contradictory…. Oh! That must mean it’s a very wise passage. Let’s see: Just as I have been without mercy in my hardening my heart to God, God will not show me mercy when he judges me. But if I show mercy, God will forgive all and be merciful.

I could do this all day, pick random verses and, like a horoscope without a sign attached to it, passed around among many people, everything can be forced to apply to you in some way.

Let’s try something else. I’m going to pick another passage at random:

“Do we really have to go through?” groaned the hobbit.

“Yes, you do!” said the wizard, “if you want to get to the other side. You must either go through or give up your quest.”

Wow, that’s actually some pretty good advice — clear and unambiguous. Obviously, this means that if I want to achieve a goal, I must see it through and go where it takes me. If I’m not ready to do what it takes, I may as well give up. (I didn’t say I was going to pick another specifically from the Bible, did I?)

Ah, how about this:

You will feel on top form, in good humor without really knowing why. You will want to achieve something amazing. You will be very attracted by a member of the opposite sex.

Why, I was in a good mood today! And indeed, at work, I’m doing my best to compile a collection of unique and helpful “insights” for our “strategic learning” program. And, heh, when am I not attracted?

Oh, oh wait, this was for Sagittarius today. I’m Pieces. Never mind, this doesn’t apply at all!

Nicky uses phrases through the video like he “sensed” God speaking to him, and he “thought” he understood what God was saying…. That’s the problem with having an involved, personal God, isn’t it? You’re all the time having to guess and assume and sense and do all this slippery, rationalizing to “hear” God and suss what he’s supposedly saying to you. Don’t you think that communication from an all-powerful being with a Plan and Intent would look a lot less like one’s own imagination and wishful thinking?

He says that the Spirit also compels us, and guides us. And that we come to recognize the “voice” of the Holy Spirit, just as one recognizes the voice of a spouse. And yet, pretty much every believer (who’s not on medication for hearing all kinds of voices), still has to interpret events, read clues, try to figure out what the “voice” is saying. When I hear my wife speak to me, like Nicky used as an example of his voice to his wife, I hear her tone and timbre, pitch and quality, and most importantly, I hear the content of her utterance to me. And even more importantly, if I didn’t quite hear or I misunderstood, I can ask her what she said and she can clarify. And no outside observer, witnessing my wife tell me to empty the litterbox, could tell me that what I heard was not a voice and not a message. That is, with the “voice” of the Spirit, not only do you have to guess at the message and even whether the message came from a supernatural intent, but every message from the Spirit looks suspiciously like coincidence and serendipity and pattern-recognition and confirmation bias. Nicky is really reaching trying to equate a spouse’s voice/message with a Spirit’s.

Nicky says we should “test the Spirit” and the message we think we receive. (Some examples he gives as messages: you should give so-and-so a call; and, you should write such-and-such a letter. Huh! Thoughts like that could never just come from your own mind!) But Nicky’s method of testing? Since God is love, (or IS he?!) if the message is a loving one, it’s from the Spirit. Really? That’s the test? First of all, I refute his premise that his Biblical God is love; and secondly, people from all religious faiths have thoughts of love. Is the Spirit guiding all of them too? If so, why bother with being a Christian?

Another way God guides us is through Common Sense. Well, a. all people of all faith can experience common sense, so see above; b. “common sense” is actually a very poor indicator of truth and can be counter-intuitive and lead us to false conclusions all the time.

Interlude – Sunday School

Time for another interlude!

So, it’s nearly a week later; I got side-tracked. Before I get back on subject, here’s a bonus critique of my visit this Sunday to my wife’s Sunday School class. It was actually worse than Alpha Class! With Alpha Class, in the small group at least, there’s a lot of opinions, personal conversation, questions, and admission of uncertainty even! In Sunday School, it’s pretty didactic. When someone asks a question, the teacher has an answer and makes it in an authoritative manner. The only really challenging questions that were asked that caused the teacher to kind of falter and be forced to admit uncertainty, and also prompted him to even praise the question asker — was asked by my wife! She’s so cool. 🙂

So, the class discussed Paul’s letter to Romans, chapters 3 and 4, the topic being primarily whether God is justified to judge people, and whether salvation is through faith or works. Heh.

OK, quickfire. Their comments, my reactions:

“God is no longer just the god of the Jews.”

So, why was he the god of the Jews in the first place? Why pick one small, nomadic group of people in the middle of a tiny patch of desert to be the god of for centuries, before deciding “Oh! I’ll be everybody’s god now!” No, we know quite well the evolution of Yahweh: He started out as one of the Elohim of Canaan where the Hebrews broke off of. He, like all the gods of the region, was a tribal god, belonging to a single group of people — not a god of the universe. This is supported by the oldest verses of the OT in which Yahweh acknowledges the existence of other gods. Supported by all the places in the older verses of the OT in which Yahweh shows to be completely non-omniscient. And non-omnipotent. (e.g.: “And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.” – Judges 1:19.) When one tribe/people/nation overtook another, it was considered their god beat the other’s. That was quite simply the common belief throughout the fertile crescent, and the Hebrews were no different. We know this from extra-biblical archeology, and from clues within the Torah/Talmud itself.

It wasn’t until the kingdom of Israel was established that Hebrew pantheon (the borrowed Canaanite El, Yahweh, Adonai, etc.,) merged into the single Yahweh and became an omni- deity. Still the god of the Israelites, but as the believers changed, so did their god. And when the Christian cult developed, so too did Yahweh, once again.

“Their [the Jews’] belief in salvation was the Law [of Moses].”

Wow. Uhm, comparative religion, 101: The Jews didn’t believe in “salvation.” To the Hebrews, all punishment and reward from God came during their life, and through the lives of their descendants (which is why SO MANY of the prescriptions from God involved cursing of descendants). They didn’t believe in any kind of afterlife, heavenly reward, and certainly no eternal punishment. Strangely, God decided to leave the concept of souls, heavenly reward, damnation, secret from his “chosen people.” At least until some subversive cult rose up, with a horrible misunderstanding of the OT, and started trying to convert as many people as possible.

According to Paul, chapter 3, no one was righteous in God’s eyes, “not a one”! Strange. Abraham was called righteous. Noah was the only righteous man in the world, supposedly. Lot’s righteousness saved him and his family. Anyway, according to Paul, Abraham was righteous because of his blind faith (because there was no Law of Moses during his time. Nice of Paul to think of that.) This, according to Paul, was the crux of salvation: faith. And yet, arguably one of the biggest controversies of Christianity for 2,000 years, has been the war between Paul and James and faith versus works. According to James, faith is nothing without works. If all you have is faith, then you have nothing because your faith isn’t evidenced. Even your reward in heaven would be determined by your earthly works. In fact, according to James, (chapter 2 somewhere as I recall), Abraham’s “justification” (righteousness) was solely because of his works. (Evidently, his willingness to strap his son down to an alter and put a knife against his throat, being among his righteous works. It doesn’t matter that God said “Psyche!” at the last moment — the fact that he would test someone in such a way is despicable and evil, and Abraham’s willingness to do so is also evil and reprehensible.)

And there’s Jesus in the gospels also discussion how one’s actions will save or condemn you, which are many.

I so wanted to bring up this well-known (I thought) contradiction of faith/works, but I didn’t have courage.

Speaking of reprehensible, the teacher brought up substitutional atonement as if it’s the most wonderful thing in the universe! “God’s like, ‘I’ve got this [sin] taken care of; this guy’s going to serve your sentence.'” Where, anywhere else in society, would we allow an innocent person to serve the sentence of a guilty man, and let that man go free, and call that “mercy” or “justice”? (See my earlier post, “Why’d Jesus Die?” for a full lesson on the cruelty and absurdity of this topic.)

“They [the Jews] knew Jesus would come and die for their sins, they just didn’t know when or exactly who he’d be.” (Probably would have helped if Isaiah prophesied his name would be Yeshua instead of Emmanuel, but oh well. Then Amy Grant would have to have had a different hit song among 1980s Christian teens.) No, no. That’s bunk. The Jews did not have any prophesies of the sort. They did have prophesies of warrior-kings who would slay the enemies of Israel; and interestingly, like Isaiah and Daniel, the books we get most of the “prophesies” of Jesus from, these saviors would be described having come in the very book, or would be referring to the nation of Israel rising up. The idea that the Jews were/are waiting for “a messiah” is Christian imposition on Jewish religion that began centuries later  in order to help bolster the claim that Jesus = God and his coming was foretold, and the “chosen people” are just too blind to see.

“You didn’t sacrifice the runt of your flock, you sacrificed your prized animal, or else it’s not really a sacrifice.” In reference to the greatness of God’s sacrifice of having himself killed to satisfy himself. As I said a few blogs before, this too is BS. What was sacrificed, in regards to Jesus? He was tortured and killed, which is no small thing. But then a day later he rises bodily from the dead as if nothing happened. He goes around and makes visits to his disciples. He, despite no record anywhere of this, appeared to hundreds. Alive. And then ascended bodily into heaven to have his place as God/at the right-hand of God for all eternity. Seriously, what the frakk was sacrificed in this?

And thanks to Paul, the concept of circumcision was bandied about all class. Hooray for primitive child genital mutilation! (Don’t get me wrong, the act of foreskin removal isn’t even close the horrors countless girls face still today from female genital mutilation in the Muslim world — not even close! But the fundamental issue is the same: non-consensual and completely unnecessary cutting off of genital pieces off infants for entirely religious reasons. No one can reply to this subject better than Christopher Hitchens:

(forward to him and the rabbai starting at 12:32 [one minute long segment])

Back to the Alpha Class

So, back on the guidance via common sense topic: Nicky claims God will not guide you to marry someone who you don’t find attractive.

*blink blink*

Really? Silly me. I, and 5 billion non-Christians, thought, one tends to strike up romantic relationships based heavily on attraction first. I guess people start considering marriage with people before they realize they’re attracted to them or not?

I guess this statement of obviousness is supposed to represent “common sense.” Score a point there. Except, that in no way whatsoever puts God on a higher probability than basic biological urge and mating attraction.

(It’s really evidently to me that I’m in a particularly impatient, snarky, cynical tone of voice. I want to apologize, but honestly, I can’t. Despite all of Nicky’s sincere niceness, friendliness, good-person-ness, he’s spewing complete unreason and drivel. At best! With things like how God teaches others lessons, and substitutional atonement, he’s teaching people to accept pure cruelty with a smile. And that tends to piss me off.)

Nicky tells a story of a friend who, when he was in college, was in love with a girl. Unsure if it was meant to be, they decided to separate for a few months to see what happens. Then, despite their attempts to not see each other, they happened to run into each other within a couple of weeks, and surely, that was a sign.

I’ll be brief: First of all, cute story. 🙂 Second of all, any amount of that from 1 to 100% could be fiction. Oh, not that anyone was lying! Intentionally. Be we all know how a story can get slightly tweaked in the telling, made a little cuter, point up a coincidence, made a little more interesting… retelling after retelling, a little more and more. And each time we remember something, a little bit differently, we reinforce in our memory the new version and sincerely believe it. Until years later, the final story could be a great story! And anything from a little, to complete fabrication. It’s an anecdote, I have no way to verify it and no reason why I should accept it at face value.

Cognitive bias is at work in our brains all the time, and it can be counted on more than the accuracy of memory.

There’s a famous experiment a psychology professor performed, which has been recreated in various way since then with the same results, in which the day after the shuttle Challenger blew up, he asked his students to write down where they were and what they were doing and what they felt when they first heard about the explosion.

Then, years later, he contacted those old students, and asked them to recall the same information. What happened? More than half of them remembered their experience with significant differences. Some people’s remembrance was wildly different.

But, here’s the most important part: Many of the people who remembered it significantly different, rejected their own recorded memory from the day after the event! They claimed their recollection then, after the event, was the one that was wrong and their current memory was the correct one!

(This is why circumstantial evidence in court is actually considered more valid than eye-witness testimony. That gray cottage-cheesey mush in our skulls we think records our perceptions and experiences like a digital recorder, is notoriously and deceptively flawed and faulty.)

Nicky ends his sermon with an admonition to not be in a hurry when waiting for God to guide you. After all, he says, God took decades to deliver on his promise to Abraham.

A) Abraham is a purely fictional character; a mythical figure that was a hybrid of Canaanite “father figure” characters, the ancient Hebrews used to teach why their people had many of the traditions they had, and were in the place in the world they were in. Most religious historians accept that even the story of the Great Child Sacrifice switcharoo story was a “just-so” story to explain the shift from human to animal sacrifice the ancient Hebrews had made. B) Abraham didn’t have to interpret signs and feelings to know what God promised — heard the guy’s very voice and had visits from angels who spoke in no uncertain terms. It’s kinda easy to have “faith” when you can actually have a two-way conversation with a walking-talking deity that provides no ambiguity or uncertainty or hiddeness in his existence.

While on the subject of God’s guidance, here’s another brief video that discusses what that guidence is/has been like, Biblically:

OK, almost done here; I have this week’s “Chuck” calling me now….

Small Group

Because I’m in a bad mood, I have to recenter and thus repeat, I like these people in small group. They’re good people. (Good people convinced to believe horrible things and call it good in some Orwellian mental conditioning.) You know how evangelical Christians use the analogy to explain why they’re so in-your-face, of if you know someone is about to be hit by a car, would you not do anything possible to save them? I feel almost the same way in my desire to help people use critical thinking and skepticism. Granted, it’s not as dire as the belief of if I fail, you’re going to be eternally tormented, but I still think it’s very important for people in particular and humanity in general, if we’re to survive, to get rid of religious credulity. So, it hurts, my integrity, to not proselytize skepticism to these people.

Anyway. So, let’s see if I can vaguely recall any of small group discussion….

The subject of whether God has a plan for people was discussed some more. I have in my notes: “It’s easy to see after the fact ‘the Plan’ working.” Take any situation in your life. If you’re a believer, you can easily retrofit the idea of it all happening according to some plan through… cognitive bias! Confirmation bias, cherry-picking, back-filling… there are many ways in which we find patterns in events and create a narrative to explain random, coincidental elements. It’s the way our minds are wired.

The apparently homophobic lady mentioned how one night years ago, she woke up in the middle of the night and felt she was being told to pray for her son in Afghanistan. Come to find out later, he was in a “situation” at that same time, and got out of it.

First of all, remember what I said earlier about memory and story-telling.

Secondly, let’s say the events as they were told happened that way. Think about this: How often do you supposed a very faithful believer feels compelled to pray about someone? Now, how often do you think a religious mother whose son is in a war zone would feel compelled to pray for him? Think about how often someone like that might wake up in the middle of the night, worried and concerned? And think about how often someone in the military in a war zone would find themselves in a “situation”? In my estimation, I would actually find it unusual if the coincidental confluence of wake-up prayer for son in war in a situation didn’t happen!

Someone mentioned something about how people weren’t killed on the side of roads back in the past, when they were younger, like they can be now. My first response was to try telling that to the guy the “good Samaritan” came across! But I also thought, if you read any books by people from the 50s and 60s, you’d know that was by no means an alien concept nor was the fear of that happening non-existent. Just read Flannery O’Connor for one example.

Someone said, if Jesus passed by a stranded traveler on the road, he wouldn’t just drive by! He’d stop and help them. Sure. But then, Jesus was a guy would could smite a fig tree at 20 paces. Can you?

One guy mentioned how any time you think your life is going well, you’re being prideful. OK, that was one moment when I got PO’ed at someone there. How dare you minimize and degrade the good in my life and chide and deride me as someone doing wrong because I’m enjoying the good in my life.

Then I felt bad for them. After all, how much self-loathing and emotional abuse does one have to suffer to believe that feeling good about your life is a bad thing?? And then I recalled all the Christian music, from traditional hymns and even children’s songs, to contemporary Christian pop/rock music that is wall-to-wall with the message that you’re worthless, you’re low and terrible, and not worthy of love and forgiveness, but God gives it to you anyway so you better praise him. What other kind of mindset can you have when you’re so constantly beaten down by such manipulative, abusive, evil, battered-species syndrome message!

Then, the same guy later talks about how before he was saved (during the time of his life he referenced as being “good” and thus prideful for having thought so), he had been drinking beer in the morning and smoking dope, before some Jehovah’s Witnesses visited. He described this, naturally, as if it were his low point in life.

Example: cognitive dissonance. Dude, yeah, if you’re drinking beer in the morning and smoking pot, chances are you’re making bad decisions in your life. And if you are thinking that you’re life is going well, you’re not being prideful — you’re being delusional.

Interestingly, this is the same guy who a few weeks earlier told us that after he was “saved,” he started wanting to be a better, different person. He started doing things differently to be more like Jesus. Uhm, might just be me, but it sounds like you are even saying yourself that you made decisions to change, to do things differently, to improve yourself. And in fact, a great many people all over the world make life-altering decisions, turn over leaves, decide to change their lives, make different decisions, and they do so believing in completely different and even mutually-exclusive religions — or no religion at all!

The underlying, overarching (I loves me the mixed metaphors!) message that everyone subconsciously is confirming, is that “stuff happens,” events look a lot like coincidence, and you can change your own life. Once again, God, his “plan,” his guidance, looks so completely hidden and invisible as to be undiscernible from non-existent.