What do you have to lose by having faith and believing that Christ was born supernaturally as a result of a virgin birth to Mary, that Christ performed miracles, that Christ died by crucifixion and came back to life from the dead, and that Christ went back into heaven in a supernatural ascension into heaven? I don’t see any downside.
I get this kind of question on occasion. Usually when someone asks it they tie it to “Pascal’s Wager.”
The first question I would ask this person is: Are you able to believe something that you honestly do not think is true?
The question itself raises a much bigger issue: what does it mean to believe? Does anyone really and genuinely think that authentic faith means mouthing certain words that you don’t actually subscribe to in order to be let off the hook? Would God be convinced by that? Wouldn’t he, uh, see through it? I assume so. So what good would it do for me to say that I believe something I don’t actually believe?
And how can I force myself to think something is true when I don’t think it is? Belief isn’t mouthing words or lying to get off the hook.
The second question I would ask is, for me, the real zinger: Can it really be a simple case of either/or? Either you believe or not? In other words, is it really a case that if you choose to believe and you’re right, you may be saved, but if you’re wrong you will be damned? Doesn’t that assume there are only two options: believe in Christ for salvation or don’t and be damned?
That may have made sense for Pascal, who lived in a world where, for all practical purposes, there were TWO options. But what about our own world? We don’t have two options. We have scads of them. And it is literally impossible to take them all.
That is to say: If you want to make sure you cover your bases when it comes to salvation: WHICH religion do you follow? Suppose you decide, OK, I’ll take Pascal’s wager and decide (somehow) to believe in Christ? What if, it turns out, Christ is NOT the right option? Or even, say, the only/best option?
In concrete terms: what if you decide to believe in Christ and then it turns out the Muslims are right? You could be damned forever for choosing the wrong option. So how do you cover the Islamic option as well as the Christianity one? And … well … there are lots of religions to choose from.
Even within Christianity: I know some Christians who have an entire detailed list of what you have to believe to be saved. And I know other Christians who have a different list. It is impossible to believe both at once, since they are at odds with one another. On a most simple level, I know different Christians who believe that if you do not belong to their denomination, you will be damned; and even Christians who say that you have to be baptized in their particular church to be saved. So what’cha gonna do?
On this logic, do you become Mormon to cover your bases? And Catholic? And Southern Baptist? And a Jehovah’s Witness? And an Independent-Bible-Believing-Hell-Fire-and-Brimstone Fundamentalist? And …. ?
— Dr. Bart Ehrman, Why Don’t You Just Believe?, December 1, 2019
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There can be no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth has been the most influential person in the history of the world. The church founded on his name shaped the history of Western Civilization, and over two billion people worship him today. And yet, because of the nature of our sources, it is surprisingly difficult to know what he actually said and did.
Jesus is thought to have died around 30 CE. He is not referred to in any Greek or Roman sources of the first century, and only briefly in our major Jewish source of the period, the historian Josephus. The earliest Christian references are from the New Testament, but most of the twenty-seven books say nothing about his words and deeds.
The four Gospels are by far our most important sources and these certainly do contain significant historical information. But they are also theological reflections on the meaning of his life and death, less concerned to report bare facts than to reflect on their meaning. Historians work diligently to get behind these reflections to determine what Jesus actually said, did, and experienced.
It is clear that Jesus was raised in a small hamlet, Nazareth, in the northern part of Israel. He was born sometime around the turn of the Common Era (4 BCE ?) in a relatively large family with brothers and sisters. We know nothing definite of his life and activities as a boy and young man, other than what we can learn from archaeology and inference. Jews in this region spoke Aramaic; Nazareth was impoverished with a small population (a couple of hundred people?); houses were roughly constructed, small, and crowded; there was no synagogue building, school, or public building of any kind; people were uneducated, lived a hand-to-mouth existence, and as a rule did not travel.
We do know that as an adult (around 30 CE?) Jesus left Nazareth to participate in the movement of a prophet called John the Baptist who was urging his followers to undergo a ritual of water baptism for cleansing of their sins because God was soon to intervene in the world to destroy all that was opposed to him in order to bring a new kingdom on earth where evil would be destroyed and only good would prevail. Jesus left his home, family, and work to be baptized by John, and almost certainly became his follower.
Eventually Jesus split off to engage in his own itinerate preaching ministry. He gathered a small group of followers and soon chose twelve to be his inner circle. The Gospels contain numerous accounts of great miracles that he did: healing the sick, casting out demons, controlling the forces of natures, and raising the dead. It is not clear if such stories – commonly attributed to great Sons of God in antiquity – originated during his lifetime or only later. He spent a good deal of his time teaching, and, like most Jewish teachers at the time, had heated disagreements with others about the proper interpretation of the law of Moses.
— Dr. Bart Ehrman, Who was Jesus?, November 29, 2019
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This week, the businessman attended the third annual Flat Earth International Conference, held at an Embassy Suites hotel in suburban Dallas, Texas. Organizers told CNN that about 600 others went too.
The event’s schedule resembled any corporate conference, with some fairly noticeable twists. Speakers gave presentations including “Space is Fake” and “Testing The Moon: A Globe Lie Perspective.” Awards for the year’s best flat Earth-related videos were handed out. And believers reveled in an opportunity to meet several of the movement’s most influential minds.
People in every pocket of this spherical planet are rejecting science and spreading the word that the Earth is flat.
There’s no clear study indicating how many people have been convinced — and flat Earthers like [David] Weiss will tell you without evidence there are millions more in the closet anyway, including Hollywood A-listers and commercial airline pilots — but online communities have hundreds of thousands of followers and YouTube is inundated with flat-Earth content creators, whose productions reach millions.
A YouGov survey of more than 8,000 American adults suggested last year that as many as one in six Americans are not entirely certain the world is round, while a 2019 Datafolha Institute survey of more than 2,000 Brazilian adults indicated that 7% of people in that country reject that concept, according to local media.
When [Robbie] Davidson first heard that people really do believe in a flat Earth, “I just laughed and said, ‘they’ve got to be the stupidest people ever.’ Who in their right mind could believe something so dumb?”
A couple of years later, Davidson was setting up the first international flat Earth conference. Like most of the speakers at the event CNN spoke to, he was convinced after he decided he couldn’t prove the Earth’s roundness.
For Davidson, a born-again Christian [a common trait among flat-eathers], the most logical explanation for the conspiracy of the millennium goes like this: “Let’s just say there is an adversary, there is a devil, there is a Satan. His whole job would be to try to convince the world that God doesn’t exist. He’s done an incredible job convincing people with the idea that we’re just on a random speck in an infinite universe.”
The reality, says Davidson, is that the flat Earth, sun, moon and stars are contained in a “Truman Show”-like dome. From there, pitfalls can be easily dismissed — like photos of the Earth from space, which flat Earthers believe are photoshopped. “This all goes away if they put a 24/7 camera feed on the moon,” he adds.
And Davidson quickly found a large online community believing the same thing. “I thought doing a conference would just take it to the next stage where the media and the world will look at it and say, ‘wait a minute — something must be going on. This is not just some internet fad, or a bunch of crazy people online. They’re now meeting in buildings.'”
He has a few things he wants to make clear to a flat-Earth novice.
Firstly, and most importantly — “none of us believe that we’re a flying pancake in space.” The community merely believes that space does not exist, the world sits still and the moon landing was faked. The jury is out on gravity — but as Davidson notes, no one has ever seen it.
Secondly — no, you won’t fall off the edge. While flat Earthers’ views of the world vary, most believe the planet is a circular disk with Antarctica acting as an ice wall barrier around the edge.
And thirdly, modern flat Earthers have little in common with the Flat Earth Society, a group that has existed for decades and has more than 200,000 followers on Facebook.
That organization, some speakers told CNN, is a government-controlled body designed to pump out misinformation and make the flat-Earth cause sound far-fetched to curious minds. Davidson calls their theories “completely ridiculous.”
Most [flat-earth] adherents say they’re just curious, as all good scientific minds should be. “We love science,” Davidson insists.
Still, most adherents demonstrate plenty of anti-scientific tendencies. It’s hard to find a flat Earther who doesn’t believe most other conspiracies under the sun; a flat-Earth conference is invariably also a gathering of anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers and Illuminati subscribers, to name a few.
It’s that hyper-skeptical mindset that helps flat earthers answer the big questions — like who’s hiding the true shape of the planet from us?
“The ruling elite, from the royal family to the Rockefellers, the Rothschilds … all of those groups that run the world, they’re in on it,” says Weiss.
Scientists have also noted that a social motive draws people to conspiracy theories — the desire to “maintain a positive view of the self and the groups we belong to,” as social psychologist Karen Douglas of the University of Kent says.
And few groups have as strong a community as flat Earthers.
“This (conference) is an outlet for a lot of people that might otherwise get ostracized by friends and family and co-workers. When they come here, they know it’s absolutely a safe space,” [Mark] Sargent says of this week’s event.
But perhaps the most important driver is an underlying need for power and control. “People want to feel safe and secure in the world,” Douglas says. And power comes from knowledge — no matter how questionable it may be.
“It seems that increasingly, people don’t trust scientists and experts, or their motives,” Douglas says. “More research needs to be done in this area, and I’m sure there are some positive consequences to believing in conspiracy theories, but early indications suggests that they are more harm than help.”
Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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Back in 2013, prominent conservative author George Weigel published “Evangelical Catholicism,” a manifesto for making the faith more like, well, evangelical Protestantism. In a shrewd review of the book, the great evangelical historian of American Christianity, Mark Noll, then teaching at Notre Dame, counted the ways. These include an embrace of biblicism, a call for personal evangelism, an emphasis on “friendship” with Jesus and even a celebration of adult baptism.
Thus did conservative Catholicism à la Weigel become inculturated with American evangelicalism (“inculturation” being the Catholic term for how the church engages with a particular culture, from 16th-century China to 21st-century Amazonia). And why not? Since the late 1970s, conservative Catholics and evangelicals have been allies in the culture war that has shaped American partisan politics.
Appearing shortly after the election of Pope Francis, Weigel’s book registers no concern that the Vatican and its episcopal appointees around the world would do anything to threaten the conservative “reform of the reform” of the Second Vatican Council undertaken by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Whoops. Six years into Francis’ papacy, the spirit of Vatican II is back big time, and, in response, the evangelical Catholicism of Weigel & Co. has become fundamentalist, in the original sense of the term.
Fundamentalism derives its name from a group of 90 essays titled “The Fundamentals” that were published between 1910 and 1915. Some of them argued for classic Christian doctrines like the Virgin Birth, Christ’s bodily resurrection and physical return, and his substitutionary atonement on the cross.
But that project was driven by opposition to Darwinian evolution, which had made considerable headway in the mainline Protestant denominations. “The Fundamentals” promulgated a novel doctrine of the Bible’s inerrancy, insisting on the literal truth of its two creation stories in a way that fetishized Protestant biblicism.
Like their Protestant predecessors, today’s fundamentalist Catholics find themselves embroiled in what they consider a war for the soul of their church. Anti-traditionally, they have combined their new biblicism with (their understanding of) Catholic teaching and discipline into the supreme religious authority, beyond the power of the pope’s teaching authority (magisterium) or church council to change.
Pope Francis’ modest reform agenda has thus become anathema to them. “There’s a breakdown of the central teaching authority of the Roman pontiff,” Cardinal Raymond Burke, their foremost American figure, recently told New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. “The successor of St. Peter exercises an essential office of teaching and discipline, and Pope Francis, in many respects, has refused to exercise that office.”
Exhibit A has been Francis’ decision to allow jurisdictions to permit Catholics who have divorced and remarried to take Communion, as if that were more of a scandal to the principle of the indissolubility of marriage than the fig leaf of annulment — and as if the Eastern Orthodox, whose claim to Christian antiquity is equal to Roman Catholicism’s, not only permits this, but allows second and third post-divorce marriages to take place in church.
In the just-concluded synod on the Amazon, the fundamentalists were scandalized by the call for married men to serve as priests in the Amazon region, as if Eastern Rite Catholic priests haven’t been married for centuries, and as if Pope Benedict this very decade didn’t authorize married Anglican priests who convert to serve as Catholic priests.
The fundamentalists were also scandalized by Francis’ reconvening a commission to study the history of women deacons in the church — a history well attested in the sources — presumably with an eye to authorizing the ordination of women as deacons sometime soon.
Most of all, the fundamentalists got their knickers in a twist over a two-foot-high indigenous carving of a naked pregnant woman, identified with an Incan figure called Pachamama, that was presented to the pope at the beginning of the synod and placed in a church in Rome (from which a young zealot removed it and threw it in the Tiber). In their view, it was a pagan idol, not an example of wholesome inculturation, as if portraying Pachamama as Our Lady of the Amazon was any more violative of Catholic belief than the assimilation of the Aztec Mother Goddess Tonantzin into the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Freedom of religion and freedom of speech allow people to believe and say what they want in this country. But I know from firsthand experience that religiously driven myths reinforced by leaders can harm children’s lives and thwart their potential.
Like many Christian children, my Amish upbringing instilled in me the belief that Jesus’ return would be preceded by devastating conditions including floods, earthquakes, droughts, tornadoes, crop failures and fires — basically all the things climate change is unleashing. With no adequate education to temper these beliefs, fear of the coming apocalypse traumatized me. Had I stayed in the religion, recent weather patterns would no doubt have had me praying doubly hard.
When I escaped my community in Michigan in the middle of the night at age 15, I arrived in mainstream society laden with fears that had been reinforced through a limited Amish education that ended at the eighth grade. I’d acquired little secular knowledge thanks to a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case Wisconsin vs. Yoder, which found that Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law was unconstitutional because it violated Amish parents’ rights to exercise their religion. As a result, I had no knowledge of science, sex education, or any subject contrary to Amish religious views. Had I not escaped, the Supreme Court ruling would have sealed my fate: becoming an ignorant Amish housewife.
My hunger for empirical answers to allay my fear of hell drove me to earn a high school equivalency diploma and eventually apply to America’s top schools. Upon entering Columbia University, I was shocked to learn that many of my professors weren’t aware that the highest court in the country had set a precedent in favor of extremist religion over my basic rights. Over and over, I’ve seen how the system regularly protects religious sects as they harm children –– from a failure to educate them to a failure to physically protect them.
For example, in New York City, Mayor de Blasio has failed forcefully to stand up to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas to ensure that these schools provide Hasidic children with a state-mandated secular education. Most recently, 30 members of the New York City Council signed a letter spearheaded by Council Members Chaim Deutsch and Kalman Yeger in opposition to regulations proposed by the New York State Education Department to provide the bare minimum general education to which they are entitled under state law.
And last month, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion by congressional leaders to defend the constitutionality of a ban on female genital mutilation after a doctor from a Muslim community was charged with cutting the clitoral hoods of nine 7-year-old girls who cried and bled as a woman restrained them.
Whether fundamentalist Islam, ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Amish, or any other religion, all insular religious communities use a range of tactics to exert power and control over their members, starting at birth. Many of those tactics are steeped in utter fictions that serve to keep children from fulfilling their potential.
Yes, religious leaders can say what they want. But society must help minimize the harm. While [Robert] Jeffress has the right to make outlandish claims about [global climate change] rainbows, children should have the right to a federally-mandated adequate education that would give them the tools to assess the veracity of those claims.
I am going to say something that I have never before said in public. I have professed my faith in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.
More than once, actually.
I don’t remember how many times. Maybe half a dozen? I do remember each time had the same empirical result, which is to say no empirical result. I was the same after as I was before. I knew nothing had changed because my Christian upbringing taught the importance of the truth. What I didn’t know then, and what seems obvious now, is that the truth isn’t The Truth.
Years later my dad asked if I was saved. It was important to him. I said yes, and I felt like a liar. Then I realized there’s no way he could prove I wasn’t. Faith, after all, isn’t falsifiable. Telling him I was “saved” had the same small-T truth to it as saying I accepted Jesus, which is to say, no truth at all. Saying the words of the profession of faith in Christ did not actuate my inner moral conscience anymore than saying abracadabra.
To born-again Christians, the event I describe here, in which you profess your faith in God who gave His only Begotten Son to be sacrificed on the Cross of Calvary so that Man might be forgiven his Sins, is seminal. The revelation of God’s Power and Glory is supposed to be a turning point one reflects on in old age in search of wisdom to pass on to youngsters embarking on their own walk with the Lord. It is the implicit or explicit lesson to every Sunday school class, every Bible story, and every sermon. Everything about born-again Christianity is bent toward the goal of your being born again. The only thing missing is how to be a good person.
For me to say that the words of profession of my faith in Jesus did not actuate my moral conscience any more than saying abracadabra did isn’t merely offensive to born-again Christians. It’s also confounding. I mean, the point of being born again is to avoid burning for an eternity in a Lake of Fire. What’s morality got to do with that? (The people I’m describing, by the way, are all white. I have no unique insight into African-American evangelical religion or culture.)
I’m no historian but it seems to me, as someone who has strayed (badly but gladly) from my born-again Christian beginnings, that many of today’s believers have turned the Reformation on its head in a way. Whole lifetimes can pass by without having to think seriously about what a good person is or how to put virtue into action—why, when, and how. And such apathy is made possible by the deep-seated belief that morality is the same as obedience to authority, especially obedience to God the Father. In other words, I am good because people in authority tell me I am good for obeying their authority. Take the believer out of the shadow of authority, however, and what do you have? A person who’s never developed a moral core. An empty vessel, sadly. Donald Trump and his white evangelical supporters have more in common than most people think. (Caveat: I developed a moral core, but it wasn’t easy on my own. Others often do the same.)
[U.S. Attorney General] Barr gave a fiery speech denouncing the threat to America posed by “militant secularists,” whom he accused of conspiring to destroy the “traditional moral order,” blaming them for rising mental illness, drug dependency and violence.
Consider for a moment how inappropriate it is for Barr, of all people, to have given such a speech. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion; the nation’s chief law enforcement officer has no business denouncing those who exercise that freedom by choosing not to endorse any religion.
And we’re not talking about a tiny group, either. These days, around a fifth of Americans say that they don’t consider themselves affiliated with any religion, roughly the same number who consider themselves Catholic. How would we react if the attorney general denounced Catholicism as a force undermining American society?
And he didn’t just declare that secularism is bad; he declared that the damage it does is intentional: “This is not decay. It is organized destruction.” If that kind of talk doesn’t scare you, it should; it’s the language of witch hunts and pogroms.
It seems almost beside the point to note that Barr’s claim that secularism is responsible for violence happens to be empirically verifiable nonsense. America has certainly become less religious over the past quarter-century, with a large rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated and growing social liberalism on issues like same-sex marriage; it has also seen a dramatic decline in violent crime. European nations are far less religious than we are; they also have much lower homicide rates, and rarely experience the mass shootings that have become almost routine here.
Nonetheless, William Barr — again, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, responsible for defending the Constitution — is sounding remarkably like America’s most unhinged religious zealots, the kind of people who insist that we keep experiencing mass murder because schools teach the theory of evolution. Guns don’t kill people — Darwin kills people!
So what’s going on here? Pardon my cynicism, but I seriously doubt that Barr, whose boss must be the least godly man ever to occupy the White House, has suddenly realized to his horror that America is becoming more secular. No, this outburst of God-talk is surely a response to the way the walls are closing in on Trump, the high likelihood that he will be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Trump’s response to his predicament has been to ramp up the ugliness in an effort to rally his base. The racism has gotten even more explicit, the paranoia about the deep state more extreme. But who makes up Trump’s base? The usual answer is working-class whites, but a deeper dive into the data suggests that it’s more specific: It’s really evangelical working-class whites who are staying with Trump despite growing evidence of his malfeasance and unsuitability for high office.
As a field, apologetics bears quite a few problems. It’s actually not easy to say exactly which might be its worst. But I see this one as a big problem: apologists’ processes never actually land where apologists insist they do. Almost every apologetics argument can be negated right out of the gate through the identification of its logical fallacies, manipulation attempts, or basic cognitive biases. Of the few remaining, they don’t whisk us away to the Happy Realm of Jesus-is-Real. Instead, apologists land themselves in the Iffy Realm of SOMEONE-Might-Be-Real and then simply declare they’ve reached their destination.
In the past, I’ve called this the Unicorn Test: any given apologetics argument not knocked out of the running through illogical reasoning accidentally demonstrates the validity of not just Jesus, but also of Santa Claus, Zeus, Space Princess Cassidy, Thor, Wonder Woman, leprechauns, Harry Potter, the state of Wyoming, and Russell’s Teapot. Substituting other names for “Jesus” in their arguments reveals the truth.
Christians have a really tough time moving from the claim that gods are not, in the main, logically ridiculous to demonstrating that their particular god simply must exist–while simultaneously demonstrating that these thousands of other deities absolutely do not. Apologists take as a given that once they demonstrate that gods in general might exist, they’ve already conclusively demonstrated those other points–and thus clinched their sale.
Reason – logical thinking by intelligent minds – proves clearly that the compassionate, all-powerful god of religion cannot exist. Simple logic clinches it, as follows:
When a woman is dying of breast cancer, or a child is dying of leukemia – and relatives pray desperately – why does the alleged god let most victims die? If the god cannot save them, he isn’t all-powerful. If he could, but doesn’t want to save them, he’s heartless, not all-loving. He’s a monster.
The same logical conclusion applies to tsunamis, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, plagues, epidemics, famines, floods, and other horrors that kill multitudes. If a god could stop the tragedies, but won’t, he’s evil.
And the logic applies to cruelties of nature. Why would a loving god design hawks to tear rabbits apart, boas to crush pigs, cobras to kill children, etc.? Only a fiend would devise a system of ruthless predator-killers.
Reason cannot disprove the existence of an evil god, but it wipes out the benevolent father-creator claimed by most churches. The only intelligent conclusion is that such a loving god cannot exist.