My Life in Movies: Big Fish (and the Resurrection of Jesus)

bigfishThis weekend, people all over the world are celebrating Easter, a holiday which reminds us that we are all so very bad that a man had to be tortured and killed in our place…because apparently that’s what we deserved.  Never mind if you think torture is wrong, or that the death penalty should be reserved for cop killers and mass murderers.  Evidently from the Christian perspective you deserve far worse than that.  You are so bad that the only way to bring justice for what you are is to torture you forever.  Even if you’re a law-abiding citizen, for about 70 years’ worth of spiritual misdemeanors and thought crimes you need to be burned alive, night and day, with no relief for the next hundred billion years and then some.  That’s the bad news.  The good news of Easter is that while you would need hundreds of billions of years to work off the misdeeds of one short lifetime, this other guy vicariously wiped out the records of millions of people’s lifetimes over the course of twelve hours one Friday.  Seems legit.

How do people come up with this stuff?  I mean really.  The utter ridiculousness of it all was lost on us because many of us learned these stories while we were still young enough to accept whatever we were told.  It has often been said that if parents and churches waited until after children developed critical thinking skills to teach them their beliefs, most religions would die away in one generation.  But at some level most Christians have learned to embrace absurdity, even counting irrationality as a sign of transcendent truth.  I have heard it argued, for example, that the logical impossibility of the Trinity just goes to show that it must be true.  They say people could never have come up with that doctrine because it makes no sense, so it must have come to us straight from God.  Thus irrationality comes to occupy a central place in the Christian faith.  If you think like this long enough, you become completely desensitized to cognitive dissonance and rhetorical incoherence.  Logical inconsistency is no match for our desire to protect and defend what we already believe.  But still we should ask:  If this stuff wasn’t handed down to us on golden plates, how on earth do stories like this come into existence?

In the movie Big Fish, a young man about to become a father himself struggles to reconcile with his own estranged father who is now on his death bed.  Because his father was always away on business, the young man had grown up not knowing him except through the grandiose stories he told at bedtime, at parties, and around the campfire.  Here at the end, more than anything else the young man wanted to know the truth behind all those stories, the man behind the mythology.  The man he knew through all those tall tales was larger than life, and his inner journalist wanted to peel back the layers of legend to learn the truth about who his father really was.  He soon discovered that after so many years of telling these stories, the old man himself had become unable to separate fact from fiction.  As far as he was concerned, the past was in the past and these stories were all that was left of the life he had lived.  He had come to view himself through the stories he told, so his son’s demand for something else only angered him.  It wasn’t until his father’s last hours that the son began to learn how almost every story his father told had an element of truth in it.  Some real historical event occurred, but in each case over the passage of time that kernel of truth became buried under layer after layer of embellishment until the man’s entire life had become an intricately woven “big fish story,” proverbial for its tendency to grow each time it gets retold for a bigger audience.  This provides an excellent lens for viewing how the stories of the Bible came to be what they are today.

Some of the Bible Really Happened

It has become fashionable among atheists to assert that Jesus never existed in real life.  Because the stories we have of his life and teachings were written down many years after the time they were to have taken place, and because the anonymous authors of those accounts were likely not eyewitnesses to those events anyway, many people today question why we have to conclude they have any factual basis at all.  We don’t even have the original versions of those accounts today; we have copies of copies of copies of copies.  The originals have long been lost and I doubt we’ll ever have them to examine for ourselves.  But despite all this, it seems most reasonable to me that those stories began as accounts of something real and unspectactular but quickly grew to sparkle and shine through the collective imaginations of people desperate for something larger than life.

If you doubt a community’s ability to believe fabricated stories so uncritically, I urge you to spend a couple of weeks delving into the paranoid schizophrenic world of Alex Jones and his “truther” site,  Within a matter of one week these guys can take a school shooting or a plane crash and weave an elaborate conspiracy theory involving multiple intelligence agencies, top-secret acting guilds, international secret societies, and government officials reaching all the way to the top of the chain of command.  They can expertly compile and present video evidence, enlisting the help of well-educated forensic professionals to bolster their case.  Perhaps up to half of their multimillion-subscriber audience only listens in because of the entertainment value.  But many people actually believe this paranoid nonsense.  People are really good at lying to themselves, especially when they feel marginalized and disenfranchised by the powers that be.  It seems to me that the earliest Christians fit that profile perfectly, and all subsequent historical records of this ancient Levantine faith were predicated on the testimonies of those original adherents.

To be honest with you though, the question of the historicity of the gospels has become super boring to me at this point.  I spent many years as a hack apologist myself and now I find myself in weekly conversation with several old-me’s wanting to rehash the same worn out topics again and again and again.  What I was not able to see all those years, and what they cannot themselves see today, is that belief in the reliability of the gospels was prior for them before then ever set out to test it.  Those presentations of “the facts” which support their prior belief will always be more convincing to them than the alternative, so really we are all wasting our time on this matter.  “Oh, you say you want to debate the historicity of the resurrection or the reliability of the gospels?  Can’t I just thrown myself down a steep hill?  It’s faster.”  Frankly, I’d like to step back and consider the Bible as a whole, asking more broadly: What do we have good reason to believe really happened amidst all those tall tales and big fish stories?  Let’s start at the beginning.  Perhaps unpacking the earlier stories on which the Christian tradition was built can help us evaluate the stories surrounding the life of Jesus.

So What’s the Real Story?

Historically speaking, the Hebrew people first appeared sometime in the 13th century B.C. in small villages throughout Canaan.  In time, stories developed of a much older history involving an originally childless patriarch whose many descendants became slaves in Egypt numbering well over a million people (the Bible claims there were 600,000 men, many of whom would be married with multiple children).  We now know that Egypt only had about 2-3 million people around that time, which is one of the reasons we know the story of their sudden dramatic departure is a fabrication.  A sudden loss of up to half of a country’s population, specifically the bulk of the labor force, plus the loss of an entire army would totally shut down a country for quite some time.  It would be impossible to completely remove the record of their presence or their dramatic exit from the annals of Egypt’s history.  But as we have it, there is virtually no evidence at all that any groups of Hebrews ever occupied parts of ancient Egypt, save for maybe six or seven vaguely Semitic names recorded on a wall somewhere.  We have so scoured the locations where the Israelites were supposed to have dwelt on their way to Canaan and have found nothing in over a century of digging.  We have even examined the appropriate archeological layers of cities where they eventually did live only to discover that they just weren’t there anywhere near as early as the Bible says they were.

All our historical hunting has revealed to us that there was no mass exodus from Egypt, no wilderness wandering of a million-plus people, and no forceful conquest of Canaanite villages (no walls of Jericho came a-tumblin’ down).  Even the later golden years of the great kingdoms of David and Solomon are nearly impossible to detect because they were so much smaller and less consequential than we were led to believe.  As they do with Jesus, many question whether an historical David or Solomon ever lived.  It seems most likely that they did live, but they were backwater tribal heads whose real-life empires have been greatly exaggerated over centuries of recounting.  Each time the stories got told, the numbers grew bigger and bigger, and as with all convincing tales, their specificity lent a credibility which was unmerited by the facts.  The turn of the spade has revealed that the reality was nothing like the tall tales.  A kernel of truth was there, yes, but buried under many layers of embellishment over centuries of retelling the tales from grandfather to granddaughter.  This is the foundational story for the formation of the people of Israel.  It’s a compelling story.  But like the birth narrative of the young man in Big Fish, it just didn’t happen at all the way they said it did.  To some people that doesn’t matter.  To people like me, it does.

This to me provides an insight into how we can view the foundational stories for the Christian religion as well.  To my mind, the most natural way to interpret those stories is to suspect that portions of those stories really happened, but that over time they became buried under layers of embellishment, filling in the details and multiplying numbers until the stories became larger than life.  There probably really was a guy who ditched his professional trade to take up full-time itinerate preaching, much to his family’s chagrin.  He was an eloquent speaker with a knack for amassing followers, and like many in his day, he performed “signs and wonders” to validate his authority as a divinely appointed representative.  He seemed genuinely convinced that he would soon witness some kind of deliverance from Roman oppression—he erroneously claimed it would even happen during the lifetime of his original audience.  In reality, he couldn’t have been more wrong.  First he was killed for speaking of a rival kingdom to that of Rome, and then just a few short years later the Romans marched on all of Jerusalem, destroying the apparatus at the heart of their religion and scattering the Jews across the empire.  You might think that this would spell doom for the Christian faith but any good student of religion knows that failed prophecies rarely ever decimate the belief system that produced them.  Everything just gets reinterpreted and repackaged so that when the next generation of believers comes along, they are completely unaware of how totally the last iteration of their faith failed the people who adhered to it.

The son in Big Fish wanted the unvarnished truth, sans embellishment.  It wasn’t as interesting as the fanciful stories his father told, but he craved reality, not entertainment.  He was trying to reconstruct his own history, and fabricated fables didn’t serve that purpose well.  Sometimes the boring truth gets lost completely because everyone who knows it has either died off or parted ways with the rest of the group.  Only the most interesting version survives the natural selection of the storytelling process.  That’s how great stories evolve.  What you end up with is something like a caricature of the truth rather than a complete fabrication.  Those sell well, so they tend to take on a life of their own.  But if you’re like me, you learn to “smell” exaggeration.  You cultivate a habit of fact-checking, corroborating evidence, comparing stories, and whittling down the fables to the facts.  This to me is the only way to live.  Some people don’t seem to need this.  Some even look down on people like me for rejecting their tall tales, like it’s a flaw in our character.  With each passing year, I’m caring less and less what they think :)

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Movies | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The No God Cast Podcast Interviews Godless In Dixie

This week, Tanner Campbell interviewed me about life as an atheist in the Deep South.  I tell a little bit of my story and I tell some of the struggles that have come with being who I am and where I am.  Evidently the video was so awesome that it fried his computer, so unfortunately that will not be available.  But you can download the audio and hear the interview here.

ngc_screencapIf you’d like to help Tanner keep his podcast going (and help replace his production equipment), consider donating to the cause or else you can become a patron in order to enjoy special perks and offers from The No God Cast podcast.  Tanner interviews someone different every week, and ordinarily they are much bigger and better known than I am.  In the past few weeks he’s interviewed Dale McGowan, Peter Boghossian, James Croft, and James A. Lindsay, and in a few weeks he’ll have Bart Ehrman on as well.  So help him keep it going!

Also, I’ve updated the Godless Tour page by adding links to the articles I’ve written over the last couple of months, so if you’d like to see what I’ve covered so far be sure to check that out.  I started the blog one year ago this week, and it looks like I’ve covered a lot!  Stay tuned this summer and hopefully I’ll be able to put some of these thoughts into book form.  If I pull that off, I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s done.


Posted in Atheism, Deep South, Media | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

My Life in Movies: The Matrix

matrix4When I rewatched The Matrix this past weekend, I didn’t realize at the time that it marked the 15th anniversary of the movie’s initial release.  I remember how much I loved it when it first came out.  I was already pretty emotionally charged because I saw it the week I became a father for the first time.  At that point I was still a devout Christian, and the movie’s obvious infusion with Christian symbolism thrilled me to the point that I became obsessed with the film for a while.  Little did I know I had taken the bait: hook, line and sinker.  I remember trying to convince a few of my friends that the makers of the movie must be closet Christians disguising the gospel as a trenchcoat-clad, anime-style action flick.  One of my friends quite summarily dismissed my thesis by matter-of-factly stating, “It’s just Plato’s allegory of the cave; it’s not Christian at all.” He was essentially right,* with the addition of some Decartes, some Nietzsche, some Baudrillard, plus an overarching aesthetic from Schopenhauer.  And yes, I know that’s a lot of names and no, I’m not even going to attempt to lay out all the ways those writers influenced this trilogy.

I will say that the elder of the Wachowski siblings is a lifelong student of philosophy (and a huge Ken Wilber fan), so the Matrix trilogy “reads” like an audiovisual dissertation on the evolution of human thought and functions as a cinematic parable of the growing self-awareness of modern humankind as a whole.  Neo is the “superman” who questions everything he is told, ultimately rejecting all the explanatory narratives he is given, including the one that tells him he’s “the one.”  The great irony there is that since “the one” is defined as one who saves the world by refusing to do what anyone else tells him to do, in rejecting his instructions to be that person he ultimately becomes “the one” in a way the machines could never have understood because following orders is all they know how to do.  Neo’s incremental awakening symbolizes our own conscious awakening.  His journey from subservient power supply to self-determining hero mirrors our own discovery that the reality with which we have been presented is an elaborately layered system of controls from which we must struggle to free ourselves if we are ever to know the next phase of our evolution.  It’s ultimately Nietzsche’s ubermensch presented as a live-action comic book hero.

But minds don’t free immediately, and like the rest of us it takes time for Neo to learn how to decode each of the successive layers of control.  Looking back on the Matrix trilogy, I see how cleverly the Wachowskis wove together a story using metaphors pulled from esoteric continental and analytic philosophy, adapting them to the high tech context in which we live.  Just as Neo’s mastery of computer code enabled him to ask the most incisive questions about the Matrix, so many of us find ourselves driven to ask the hardest questions about the world around us.  For people like me, that means I spent at least some time inhabiting the symbolic world of religion.

While many around me seemed content to go about their daily business without investing noticeable energy into figuring out why we do what we do, or what it’s all about, I was one of those who wanted to know more.  I wanted to understand what makes us and the world around us tick.  What I didn’t realize, however, was how religions like the one I threw myself into can provide answers which placate that hunger to understand the world without really answering any of the questions I’ve asked.  Like the iconoclastic masses which gathered around the messiah narrative in the Matrix sequels, we flock to churches, mosques, and temples to feel a part of something transcendent.  We feel it empowers us to rise above the petty pace that creeps in from day to day, giving meaning to our brief lives.  But few of them ever thought hard enough to make the unsettling discovery that Neo made:  that even the prophecy of “the one” who will free the people of Zion from their mechanical captors serves as an alternative form of control.  The machines were using “the one” just like they were using the Matrix itself.

In time it became apparent that the machines had done this many times before.  Just as human civilizations keep reinventing religion after religion in their own image (often at a significant profit), so the machines had learned to harness the human desire to question things and use it for their own benefit.  The machines figured out how to tap into that curiosity and channel it into occupations which serve their own controlling purposes.  Their plan would have worked this time, too, if it hadn’t have been for that meddling virus, Agent Smith.  Neo’s detachment from the game plan he was supposed to execute created a break in protocol which made Agent Smith a sort of free radical in the system.  He began to copy himself over and over again, gaining new powers each time Neo advanced in his capabilities.  Smith was like the yin to Neo’s yang.

In the end, Neo realized he could only defeat Smith with the help of the very machines he was supposed to be conquering.  Instead of destroying them, he learned to use the machines to do his own bidding.  That, in essence, was the Wachowskis’ take on how each of us can break free from the controls which civilization uses to hold us in place while also acknowledging the symbiotic nature we have with it.  If I’m “reading” it right, this trilogy is an interpretation of the history of both philosophy and religion, and it’s intended to illustrate that we must question everything and learn to reject those controlling narratives which enslave us to the social systems around us.  Heady stuff, and set to some killer special effects, too!

I’m not sure I could say that the Matrix trilogy served any crucial role in my own awakening from my dogmatic slumber, but it sure does provide an entertaining parable of the struggle for intellectual freedom that many of us went through to get to where we are now (minus the bullets and hand-to-hand combat).  And who’s to say we’ve deconstructed all the layers even today?  Perhaps as we keep questioning we will discover that each of our prior discoveries along the way were incorrect, or at least misunderstood, so that we still haven’t figured out some of the most basic things there are to know.  I for one am fairly comfortable admitting agnosticism toward the ultimate questions of life.  I’m not likely as confident in my knowledge as I sometimes seem to other people, but I am fairly confident that the stories I was told before did a poor job of answering the questions that I asked.  That’s at least something.  I call it progress if we’ve at least eliminated a handful of falsehoods on our long journey to understanding how things really are.

[For more in the series "My Life in Movies," click here]

[For more articles by Neil, Take the Godless Tour]


*Re: Plato’s cave. . .You hear that, “old friend?”  I just admitted above that you (and you know who you are) were right about something and I was wr. . .I was wro. . .I . . .you were right, m’kay?  Don’t let it go to your head or anything.

Posted in Movies, Religion | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Debate in Memphis: Dillahunty vs. Bruggencate

Finally, someone organized a debate somewhere near where I live!

I’ve griped before about how all the cool conferences for skeptics and secularists and such happen everywhere except in the Deep South (or as I often call it, the Derp South).  It’s hard to achieve a critical mass of Southerners who are “out” and public enough with their non-belief to support, promote, and/or attend a publicized event like that.  I’m looking forward to the day when we can have one of the big skeptic/atheist conventions in Mississippi, or Alabama, or Arkansas, or Louisiana.  That would be something.

But now Memphis, Tennessee has won the honor of hosting the next notable debate between an atheist and a defender of the Christian faith.  Sye Ten Bruggencate and Matt Dillahunty (of The Atheist Experience) have been exchanging video challenges back and forth now for quite some time.  Now they’ve settled on a venue for a live debate, and it’s within driving distance of where I live (!) so you can bet I’ll be making that trip.  It’s happening the last Saturday in May at the Marriott Memphis East.


There will be a dinner at 5pm, a presentation by David Smalley of Dogma Debate at 6pm, and then the debate will run from 7-9pm there at the hotel, after which time there will be more mixing and mingling, complete with cash bar, followed by a Dogma Debate livecast from 10:30pm to midnight.

Finally something I can attend without having to purchase plane tickets!

What Exactly Is Presuppositionalist Apologetics?

Bruggencate will be representing, in his own style, the Presuppositionalist approach to apologetics (PA).  I’m quite familiar with this approach as it was the favored approach at the seminary where I did my graduate studies (Reformed Seminary in Jackson).  In fact, Bruggencate’s hero, Greg Bahnsen, was a professor at my seminary at one point in time, and students and faculty alike still speak of him in hushed tones, as one speaks of a fallen hero who died in battle.  My take on the PA is that it represents an intellectual retreat from classical (aka “Thomistic”) apologetics because over time the progress of scientific discovery whittled the claims of natural theology down to almost nothing.  The older approach, often termed an “evidentialist” approach, is still around, because that’s the way it goes with religion:  Old ideas never die away, even after they’ve become obsolete.  But Cornelius Van Til, a Reformed theologian and one of the founders of Westminster Seminary, pioneered a more thoroughly Calvinistic approach to the defense of the faith which basically says:

You’re too fallen and wicked to know what’s right or good or true, so just believe the Bible already!

Okay, so they go into a bit more detail than that, and it gets incredibly circular.  Wisely noting that the classical evidentialist approach was doomed, Van Til encouraged his pupils to simply engage non-theists in an internal critique of any view other than Christianity in order to show that logic and reason break down at some point.  In a way, this is brilliant, because the truth is that (as I understand it) logic does break down at some point…for everybody.  No worldview escapes this weakness.  There is a circularity to logic and reason in that they rely on certain assumptions about knowledge and laws of non-contradiction and so forth.  That doesn’t even mean they have to be rooted in something metaphysically transcendent; it just means that in order to speak intelligibly about anything, you have to agree to certain rules about how the conversation will proceed.  As long as people can agree on those basic rules, we can communicate.

But the PA notes the fact that certain things must be assumed in order to have these conversations, and they ask “How can you really know that you know anything at all?”  It’s ultimately a game of epistemology, and their argument basically asserts that if there are any holes in your understanding of the world, anything that you don’t know that you know, the only legitimate alternative is Christianity.  There are NO other alternatives.  None.  Just don’t even look for them.  Because those are your only two options:  Whatever your current view happens to be, and (Reformed) Christianity.  Pay no attention to all the logical steps you’re leaping over to get from point A to point X.  If your view has weaknesses, you must learn to believe the Bible.

There.  I just saved you a bunch of time.  Now can we get to the cash bar? :)

By the way, a huge thank you goes out to Sarah Morehead of Recovering from Religion for putting this long-awaited meeting together.  Hats off to you!  And if you’re looking for a fun conference to attend this year, I’ve got their big meeting in September, Apostacon, on my radar.  That’s one I don’t want to miss.

Here’s the link to get your tickets!

Posted in Apologetics, Atheism, Christian Apologetics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

What the World Vision Reversal Should Teach Us

Glancing at the front page of Christianity Today last night, I saw that three of the five leading headlines featured stories from the front lines of the culture wars:

Headline 1: World Vision reverses decision to hire Christians in same sex marriages.

Headline 2: Why Hobby Lobby is this year’s Supreme Court case to watch.

Headline 3: Christian college solidifies complementarian stance.

Two of those stories stem from institutions attempting to adhere to locatable verses in the Bible while the third is far more complex. The Hobby Lobby battle doesn’t invoke any explicit biblical mandate per se, rather it involves a complicated interplay between reproductive rights, personal autonomy, and religious freedom. As such I’d rather not open that can of worms in this post except to note that all three stories involve Christians being against something. These three headlines on the most popular Christian periodical in the world send an unmistakable message that a sizable portion of the Christian population defines itself by what it opposes. A minority of that population will find this whole situation deeply disgusting. And both sides will argue that their approach is the most Christian way of looking at things.

The story about Cedarville University involves a school president subjecting a previously well-respected school to retrogressively sexist policies in deference to the biblical prohibition against women teaching spiritual things to men. In the past this school has had no problem behaving like a 21st century American institution, but starting in the fall, female religion professors will only be allowed to teach female students because that’s the way the Bible says to do it. Two thousand years of cultural growth and progress erased with the stroke of a pen, along with the concomitant elimination of a few administrative positions in order to consolidate the decision-making process under the direct supervision of the president. Funny how often strict biblicism and heavy-handed authoritarianism appear in the same stories. One would almost think they are inseparable. Cedarville faculty and alumni are truly grieved by the sudden backward lurch and I can’t say that I blame them. I don’t believe the Baptist college I attended has ever allowed female Bible teachers. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the school’s endowments spell out that prohibition explicitly as a condition for continued support. When I attended, the women still had a curfew while the men did not. Chew on that for a while.

world-visionBut the World Vision story hits me harder than any of the others. Much already has been written about this fiasco, and as always I’m a day or two behind writing about things because free time is scarce. But I’d like to give my reaction to this story because this one hit me in the feels. As an atheist who once struggled with the inconsistencies of my religion, I can identify with my gay friends who still consider themselves Christians but have to deal with constant judgment from the rest of their faith community. Many people I respect and appreciate had likely developed a false hope that the church might be finally starting to grow up and enter the adult world. World Vision is an institution founded for the purpose of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and healing the sick. What more beautiful legacy could you hope for in a religious organization? Because humanitarian aid occupies the central position in World Vision’s mission (rather than sectarian theology), the leaders of the organization announced that they were going to be allowing people into their work who are in same-sex marriages. They just didn’t feel that their help should be turned away just because they were in loving, committed relationships with members of the same sex.

Many immediately welcomed this new development. Rachel Held Evans stuck her neck out a bit and rallied behind them, asking for their support because she knew that a number of churches and denominations would consider opposing gay marriage to be more important than honoring their pledges to the individual children they had promised to sponsor. Evans wants to see the Christian legacy move more towards the kind of concerns which Jesus focused on, and Jesus never said a word about homosexuality (for the record he also never addressed birth control, abortion, or the subjugation of women, either. Some would argue that he was comparatively a feminist for his time and place). I guess I could relate to that, and I found myself cheering for her and for all the other young Evangelicals whom she has come to represent for me. She speaks for a demographic that doesn’t subject all of life to the rigid ideology of Fundamentalism, and frankly I’d like to see their tribe increase. Many of my skeptic friends would be horrified to hear me say that but my contention is that religion isn’t going away anytime soon, so I’d rather encourage those forms which are more humanistic. For me, the atheist label speaks to only one question and it doesn’t say enough about who I am and what I believe. I am also a humanist, and as such I feel a kinship with anyone who can put aside sectarian differences to help make the world a better place. For a moment there, it seemed like another large group of Christians was going to do that.

But almost immediately after making this announcement to the world, this charitable organization reversed its decision because of the overwhelming disapproval of several powerful corners of Christendom. The Baptists, the Fundamentalists, the Presbyterians, and the Pentecostals all sounded off and condemned World Vision for their tolerance of same-sex relationships, saying they had forsaken the gospel itself. The urged their own churches to withdraw their monetary pledges, effectively saying they’d rather see a child starve than allow a gay couple to get married. Believe or not, many of them unscrupulously stated that exact sentiment without remorse.

This is what Christianity has been reduced to for millions around the world.

And yeah, I know to some it will seem a cheap shot for a non-Christian to “put them on blast” at a moment like this. It’s not fair, some will say, to rub this in anyone’s face because it doesn’t represent every Christian everywhere. No, clearly it doesn’t. But to them I would say, “What are you going to do about it?” If you are a Christian and you feel that it’s a misplacement of priorities to make anti-homosexuality a defining characteristic of your 21st century testimony, you should speak up about it. Make your voice heard. They’re certainly not going to listen to somebody like me. I suggest you wrestle with this issue for yourself and make up your mind, then speak up and let everyone else know what you think should define your faith. If you don’t, others will do it for you and you may not like what they do with it. I’d like to offer three additional observations/lessons from this debacle, and then I’ll leave this already worn-out discussion, so filled with legitimately raw emotions, alone.

1) Young Evangelicals underestimated how unable to change their fellow Christians truly are. Religions based on authoritative revelation cannot learn new things. You can only start a separate movement and wait for the old guard to literally die off. They take their beliefs to the grave. That means you’re probably stuck with this situation for at least the foreseeable future. How long are you willing to wait for them to come around before you quit trying to change them and go your own way?

2) Conformity, not love, is the central tenet of the Christian religion. Yeah, I used to be one, too, so I know how much a Christian would object to that statement. But that is what this moment shows the world. If you’re fond of saying that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion, look no further for a counterexample to that assertion.

3) Young Evangelicals will very soon reject the Evangelical label entirely, with more abandon, and that speaks of major trouble for these church traditions in the very near future. I’ll admit it’s hard to say with any great confidence what this will mean down the road. Every time critics of Christianity have declared its demise, it reinvents itself and survives into the next generation. What’s more, Fundamentalism doesn’t seem to go away even in the face of overwhelming contradictions and cultural disapproval. In fact, Fundamentalism seems to thrive on opposition because it feeds the persecution complex. They love feeling like the world is out to get them because it makes them feel like they matter. But instead of retreating into an irrelevant corner of society as secularists of a previous generation once thought they would, they’ve taken over the state legislatures, the judicial benches, and even some of the popular programming of multiple media platforms.

But the younger generation does not identify with the causes of the older generation. We’re seeing a disconnect that’s more dramatic than what has occurred in previous periods of history. Moments like this drive an even larger wedge between the old guard and the new. I don’t think the current leaders have any grasp of how utterly they are alienating their successors. They are in a faith-based denial about the whole thing, blindly trusting that God will reward their fanaticism with continued provision. They won’t even be around to see how completely this may be burying their style of Christianity. I guess time will tell.

For now, my main reaction is grief and sympathy for those progressive Christians who thought this moment would see a small step forward for their global community. Their hopes were shattered, and for those many Christians in same-sex relationships, this was a deep wound which will alienate many (if not most) of them from their forebears. This moment cut deep, and that pains me. I hope it will wake them up. I hope some of them will see that this isn’t just about an older generation being untrue to their religion. On the contrary, the problem is that they’re being too true to it, following their authoritative revelation exactly the way they were taught to do it. If this displeases you, please realize you are fighting against your own holy book. These people aren’t making this stuff up. They’re just doing what the Good Book says to do. Maybe it’s time to rethink that commitment once and for all.

I gave it up. I highly recommend it. Come on in, the water’s fine, I promise :)

Posted in Christianity, Fundamentalism | Tagged , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Upcoming Podcast & a Godless Assembly in Tennesseee

If you’re interested, I’ve got a couple of upcoming public appearances, one of which can be caught online and another which will happen in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

humanist02First, I’ll be interviewed for an upcoming episode of The No God Cast podcast airing Tuesday, April 8th at 7pm.  The No God Cast is a part of the Secular.FM network and has in the past few weeks featured interviews with the likes of Peter Boghossian, Dale McGowan, James A. Lindsay, and James Croft.  Not sure how I landed a spot amidst those names, but I’ll pretend like it makes perfect sense and maybe nobody will notice the incongruity.  You can access that podast either through the link above or else you can like the Facebook page and follow the interviews that way instead.  Most recently, Tanner Campbell interviewed Madison Kimrey, the twelve year-old who has been campaigning against the more restrictive voter registration laws in her home state of North Carolina.  I expect we’ll be hearing a good bit from her in the future.  If you like his format, you should consider becoming a patron to help support his effort to bring more helpful interviews to the web.

humanist01Then if you happen to live in the Chattanooga, TN area, on Sunday, May 11th at 4pm I’ll be speaking to the Chattanooga Humanist Assembly.  This group recently began meeting on the second Sunday of each month to provide a place for skeptics and humanists to mix and mingle with like-minded folks.  You won’t find many such assemblies here in the Deep South, but hopefully that will change in the near future.  Many have been using meetup groups for some time, but groups tend to come and go because in the Bible Belt it’s pretty difficult to achieve the critical mass required to establish a thriving group like this.  Many atheists are closeted and cannot publicly identify as such for fear of social and professional repercussions.  It’s also a real challenge getting non-conformists to join a group of any kind!  But I believe organizing ourselves into communities is an essential next step to making life a little better for people like myself who don’t fit into the Southern religious mold.  It’s a great way to meet people, and from time to time you can even gather around a project or a cause, accomplishing way more together than any one or two individuals could ever do alone.

I’ll provide a link to the interview once it’s up, and as more opportunities like this arise, I’ll be sure to let you know about them.

Posted in Atheism, Personal, Public Appearances | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Does Evolution Contradict Christianity?

tyson-mcfarlaneMan, has it been a busy few weeks for science deniers everywhere!  Last month, Bill Nye went head-to-head with Ken Ham in a much ballyhooed debate about Creationism, and by most accounts Nye roundly schooled the Young Earth creationist on his own home turf.  Ham’s loyal supporters dutifully praised him for his performance but the bulk of their accolades centered around the fact that he managed to robotically rehearse “the plan of salvation” multiple times during his presentation.  They couldn’t have cared less about the science-y part of the debate, which in itself says an awful lot about that subculture.  But then over the last couple of weeks the first two episodes of Cosmos aired, and creationists of all kinds are having virtual aneurysms.  Some of them are complaining (again from Ham’s alternative reality) that all that science Neil deGrasse Tyson keeps dropping on the world needs to be balanced by…well, let’s call it what it is:  ancient mythology.

First Tyson had the nerve to say that there is strong evidence to suggest that the Big Bang Theory presents a valid model for what happened at the earliest moments of the cosmos.  Young Earth folks snickered and rolled their eyes at that claim (“Show us this evidence!”), but it was only a matter of a few days before news broke that a team of researchers had correctly calculated primordial ripples in the fabric of space left over from the initial inflation of the universe.  Of course, that’s one of the beautiful things about science:  It supplies models from which we can make precise predictions in order to either validate or else falsify the ideas which structure our thinking.  The many varieties of Creationism (including Old Earth and “Intelligent Design”) cannot do that because they always rely on asserting at some point, “You can’t explain that!”  A school of thought whose answer for everything unknown is simply that “God did it” has nothing to contribute to the scientific disciplines. You cannot formulate testable predictions out of “it was a miracle.”


Then episode two aired, which focused largely on evolution.  You could almost hear the teeth grinding from multiple corners of the religious world.  You could virtually see their blood pressure shooting up at the mention of Charles Darwin.  See, it’s not just the bizarre Ken Ham types who deny common ancestry.  Many Christians who accept that the universe is billions of years old and know better than to take stories like Noah’s Ark seriously still refuse to accept the idea that one species can develop from another.  That idea both contradicts how the Bible says God did it (with each species created separately and independently of one another) and it blends man and beast in a way that fundamentally challenges their theological understanding of what makes us different from other living things.  Call it human exceptionalism.  Christianity teaches that humans are uniquely important in the universe and that things which are just natural for other animals are “sinful” for us.  Once you blur the line between man and beast, you threaten the very ground on which the whole Christian story is built.  Without the concept of sin, you lose the need for salvation, and the whole Christian message falls apart.

But which Christian story are we talking about?  Defining Christianity is exceedingly difficult.  For starters, I’m not convinced there ever was one single monolithic tradition which we could call True Christianity™.  It seem obvious to me that there were always “competing christianities” even in the very earliest days of this religion.  But more than that, this faith (or rather this constellation of faiths) has been reinvented so many times in so many different contexts and cultures and vocabularies that one can scarcely even speak of this belief system in the singular.  For almost any dogmatic belief you pick, there are a dozen sects of the same religion which vehemently oppose that doctrine, saying that it contradicts the clear teaching of the word of God (or of the Mother Church, or whatever).  Seeing this difficulty, some would enjoin us to simply strip away the non-essential issues and boil things down to what C.S. Lewis romantically termed “mere Christianity,” meaning that which has been believed by most Christians for most of the religion’s history.

That’s not as easy to do as it sounds on the surface, and good luck getting them to agree about which issues are “non-essential!”  But for the sake of today’s question (Does evolution contradict Christianity?) I can make this as minimalistic as Steve Jobs’ old apartment.  At its barest roots, anything which can be called Christianity teaches there is a personal God who cares for the things and people he/she/it creates.  With all extraneous trappings removed, all Christian traditions profess a belief in a deity who is personal, loving, and who intervenes in some way or another in the affairs of the real world.  Sure, there are plenty of other concepts of God out there (many of them polytheistic), but any version which makes God an impersonal Force, or a Being completely detached from and uninvolved with what he/she/it has created cannot sensibly be called a “Christian” concept of God.  Can we at least agree on that?  The Christian God is a personal God who intervenes in the world out of care for what he/he/it has created.

A Reluctant Conclusion

It seems to me that when rightly understood, evolution fundamentally contradicts this concept of God.

I want you first to know how vigorously I have fought against drawing this conclusion.  I want desperately to find common ground with my friends and family who are Christians, and saying that evolution contradicts their religion cuts the legs from under that endeavor.  I don’t want to draw this conclusion.  I want to agree with brilliant and well-meaning people like Francis Collins and Peter Enns and all the other brave souls at Biologos who take an essentially Theistic Evolution position, arguing that there is no contradiction between science and the more intelligent versions of the Christian faith.  But Paula Kirby once articulated* the problem with this approach:

But of course evolution poses a problem for Christianity. That’s not to say it poses a problem for all Christians, since many Christians happily accept evolution: they see Genesis 1 as merely a metaphor, and declare that if God chose to create us using evolution, that’s fine by them. I used to be this kind of Christian myself; but I must confess that my blitheness was only possible because I had only the vaguest possible idea of how evolution works and certainly didn’t know enough about it to realize that unguided-ness is central to it. While I welcome anyone who recognizes that the evidence for evolution is such that it cannot sensibly be denied, to attempt to co-opt evolution as part of a divine plan simply does not work, and suggests a highly superficial understanding of the subject. Not only does evolution not need to be guided in any way, but any conscious, sentient guide would have to be a monster of the most sadistic type: for evolution is not pretty, is not gentle, is not kind, is not compassionate, is not loving. Evolution is blind, and brutal, and callous. It is not an aspiration or a blueprint to live up to (we have to create those for ourselves): it is simply what happens, the blind, inexorable forces of nature at work. An omnipotent deity who chose evolution by natural selection as the means by which to bring about the array of living creatures that populate the Earth today would be many things – but loving would not be one of them. Nor perfect. Nor compassionate. Nor merciful. Evolution produces some wondrously beautiful results; but it happens at the cost of unimaginable suffering on the part of countless billions of individuals and, indeed, whole species, 99 percent of which have so far become extinct. It is irreconcilable with a god of love.

Most Christians who finally capitulate to common ancestry will simply conclude “that’s how God did it,” and that conclusion makes perfect sense to me up to a point.  Like Kirby, that’s what I did once, too.  But in time I came to see how utterly wasteful, brutal, and cruel this process has been throughout the hundreds of millions of years that it’s been operating.  You simply cannot view the complete random unguidedness that is our biological history and say that anything intelligent was behind it, not in any ostensible way, at least.  Or if you insist that an Intelligence stood by and watched as this harsh and unfeeling process unfolded, you will have quite a time reconciling that with the notion of a personal Being who has sympathetic impulses toward his creation at any level.  Only a monster could have the power to limit suffering of this magnitude and yet do nothing about it.  Forget cancer, tsunamis, birth defects and child molestations.  That’s just a sampling of the suffering of our species over a few thousand years, and Christians usually shift the blame for all of those things onto the Fall of Adam anyway (yes, even the catastrophic weather events).  Leaving that aside, unspeakable waste and suffering has befallen millions of species over our long planetary history, the majority of which predates the evolution of the human race.  There is no reasonable way to see an all-powerful deity possessing even a smidgeon of compassion guiding this process at any level, not if you really see the process for what it is.  You will have to turn a blind eye toward some aspect of it or else it won’t compute.  You will always be trying to gloss over the messiness of it all in order to find some kind of purposeful direction inherent therein.  Your determination to see “intelligent design” behind it will always lead you to misperceive and misrepresent the way things actually happened.

Which God Were We Talking About Again?

As I said before, you cannot critique any single Christian tradition without drawing at least a few objections from some of the other traditions going by the same name.  That’s one of the great frustrations with trying to have constructive dialogue with this constellation of faiths.  They keep shouting either “Straw Man!” or else “No True Christian!” without ever acknowledging that the Christian sitting right next to them embodies everything you just described.  This makes reasonable discussion very difficult and it drives most of the sane skeptics away from these conversations entirely, leaving behind only the insensitive jerks to troll the faithful in fruitlessly circular insult-slinging matches.  I have my petty moments, too (my patience does have its limits), but I try my best to acknowledge the diversity of belief that exists whenever I can.  In that spirit, I’ll briefly mention two varieties of belief which call themselves “Christian” but could accept the cold, brutal wastefulness of the evolutionary process rightly understood as an unguided process.

First, hypothetically speaking, are the Calvinists.  Calvinism embraces the deterministic worldview presented in the Bible without trying to sugar coat it according to modern sensibilities.  Our obsession with free will is a modern phenomenon, unknown to the biblical writers who saw everything as guided by God, whether beneficial or catastrophic.

When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it? –Amos

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. –Isaiah

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. –Jesus

[God] works all thing according to the counsel of his will. –Paul

In theory, the Calvinists could reconcile the wastefulness of unguided evolution without difficulty because they’ve already resigned themselves to the idea that God doesn’t love everybody the same.  Some he chooses to hate (see Romans 9:13-18).  The Reformed version of God can be brutally cold to 99% of all species and even 99% of all humans.  He can do as he pleases and you have no right to find any fault with this.  Does that sound terrible to you?  Would you believe they’re just being biblical?

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:19-21)

So again, in theory, because of the Calvinist’s fierce determination to be biblical, he could very well be cool with this situation except that the very same strict biblicism which teaches him in Romans that God hates a lot of people also tells him back in Genesis that God made people separately from all other animals. Calvinists are inerrantists, so they must reject common ancestry out of hand.  Many of them despite their erudite elitism are even Young Earth creationists (What can I say?  The human mind is ingenious at clinging to contradictory things).  That rules out the Calvinists.

The only other group I can think of which calls themselves “Christian” and yet could unreservedly accept the randomness of evolution without trying to pretty it up would come from the ranks of liberal Christianity (although most of them would still have a hard time seeing God so cold and unaffected by suffering).  In order to maintain a loving picture of God—one in which he loves everyone, not just a select few within one species—you would have to limit his powers in such a way that he is no longer omnipotent, as most historic Christianity sees him.  Process theology, for example, sees God not as fully developed, all-knowing and all-powerful, but rather continually developing and growing, himself evolving along with us.  The truth is, once you no longer feel bound to biblical categories for God, there’s no end to the number of theological innovations you can imagine. But it’s not intellectually honest to call those innovations “Christian.”  One could argue that since Christianity itself is consistently being reinvented, there’s no harm in taking it a few steps further away from its original varieties.  That’s not really my battle, so frankly I couldn’t care less.  But I do think you should be up front and honest about how consciously discontinuous with Christian tradition you are being.  It significantly impairs fruitful dialogue when so many people carelessly use the same label to describe such wildly different and irreconcilable things.

The Christian concept of God intervenes in the world and directs the affairs of the human race.  You can abandon biblical literalism, jettisoning the six-day creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah’s Ark and still call your beliefs “Christian.”  Shoot, there are many liberal Christian traditions which even teach that you can deny the literal resurrection of Jesus and still be a Christian.  They spiritualize the whole thing and say it’s just a metaphor.  It seems to me that departs from “mere Christianity” but whatever.  Even those folks still believe that God intervenes in the world to make things happen which wouldn’t naturally happen on their own without his intervention.  There just isn’t any concept of God that can rightly be called “Christian” which envisions a disinterested absentee Creator keeping his hands off while such a wasteful, destructive, and completely random mess of a process unfolds.  You either have to pick a different God, or superimpose a guidedness that isn’t there.  I’m not saying you can’t believe in a God; I’m just saying these two things don’t fit together at all.


* Paula Kirby’s piece entitled “Evolution Threatens Christianity” seems to have been pulled from both its original location at the Washington Post and on Richard Dawkins’s website.  I’d love to hear if anybody knows why.

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Fundamentalism, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 76 Comments