Shane Hayes, Part 3: The Pursuit of Happyness.

Hi and thanks for joining me! We’ve been talking lately about Shane Hayes’ new apologetics book, The End of Unbelief. It’s about how he was raised a fervent Catholic, spent a brief time as a “militant atheist” as well as a member of a number of other religions, and then reconverted to Christianity. It features what he claims on the cover of the book is a “new approach to the question of God.” Today we’re going to begin discussing what he thinks is a “new approach.” We’re going to start by looking at his conceptualization of atheism itself and how it led to his argument. It’s a very common mistake made by Christians, so it’s worth taking time to look at it.

The sign reads: "Religion has killed 2,22...

The sign reads: “Religion has killed 2,229,074,100 people who are the real murderers?” This is a quote from the Teapot Atheist: teapotatheism.blogspot.com/2008/06/anonymous-wanted-body-… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So far, I just want to say that I’ve been hugely unimpressed with this author’s assertions and logic–or lack thereof. Nothing he’s saying about atheism even sounds halfway like what atheists usually mean by the word. He’s been either utterly ignorant of simple concepts or else disingenuously handling them to make Christianity sound stronger than it really is. I’m sure his audience–Christians–won’t mind; they already think this way about non-believers, largely thanks to people like him. But it’s still dishonest and mean-spirited, however nicely he cloaks the attempt.

We first talked about my general thoughts about Shane Hayes’ path back to Christianity, and how I didn’t think any of the other religions he tried were really nearly as big a deal in his life as he’s making them sound. As we progressed on through his preface, wherein he demonstrates near-total ignorance of science, atheism, and the other religions he claims he pursued, I talked about how he doesn’t understand how a belief can be built from blind faith–which is to say from a base of innocent ignorance or willfully-ignorant self-delusion–or from credible, demonstrated facts. He seriously thinks the scientific method and established principles like kinetic theory are on the same level as anything out of Christianity. As far as he’s concerned, there’s no way to really know for sure about anything at all. If we told him he’s totally wrong there, it’d wreck everything to follow.

This particular erroneous idea of his–that nothing can actually be proven true or false–is supremely important. Indeed it forms the very basis for the argument he’s about to present. Because no belief can be demonstrably truer than any other belief, by definition one should go with the belief that confers the most benefits, in his argument. You might as well believe this stupid thing as that other stupid thing, since neither one can be conclusively proven to be truer than the other. At that point you’re down to which belief serves you the best and has the greatest payoff. I’m sure it makes perfect sense to him, since he always believed in Christianity anyway so he can fool himself into believing he “chose” it.

Obviously, like almost every Christian I’ve ever run across, he very clearly thinks that beliefs can be chosen at will and can be willed into existence, fervency, and strength. He is presenting his story as if he, as a Christian, dutifully considered the available information and arguments and decided in cold rationality to become an atheist, then to become a member of all the other religions he pursued, then to reconvert back to Christianity.

So let’s actually look at this first chapter of his, “An Agnostic Argues for Faith.”

One of our blog’s friends recently made a comment that’s been making me reconsider my stance about flat-out not questioning someone’s status as an ex-atheist, and this chapter has sealed the deal. Whatever this guy thought atheism was, however “militant” he says he was as an atheist, what he describes does not actually make him sound like any atheist I’ve ever heard of. Certainly it doesn’t sound like the unshackling and sudden rush of freedom and liberation that I consider all but synonymous with atheism:

For me, (atheism) was like Antarctica–glacially cold and wind lashed, an icebound waste devoid of tree, shrub, or flower, no hint of blossoming life visible on the horizon, and beyond the horizon … nothing. I endured my own atheism for most of a decade. Then, drawn homeward, I swam against the tide for years, made a grueling journey back to the island of faith–for me, a lush Capri of the soul.

Why are the choices Capri or Antarctica? Which belief system is Germany? Which one is Canada? Or Somalia? (Dare I say it? Yes. Atheism is a place like abstinence is a sex position.) We’re going to talk about this error in thinking in the next post, but for now, let’s concentrate just on his conceptualization of atheism and Christianity and the idea of happiness: Does that description even sound vaguely like any atheist’s story you’ve ever heard?

Here, by contrast, is my friend Neil’s very well-written account of what his life was like after rejecting religion: Peace of mind, rediscovery of his love of learning, the ability to accept people he’d once judged and even his own deeply human foibles, an appreciation for people’s abilities and the ability to thank them instead of a god, getting more free time, having better health, enjoying a richer and freer sex life, acquiring a circle of friends who are a lot more fun to be around, and having much more realistic expectations about life–and an appreciation for its genuine beauty and preciousness–in general. Does any of that sound like a bleak Antarctica to you? No, Neil’s account sounds more like the “lush Capri” in the false dilemma above–and it matches very well with what I’ve heard from more atheists than I can count.

And, too, I’ve described the crushing hell that was Christianity in my own life and how relieved and happy I was to realize it wasn’t true at all and that I could quit laboring under those false ideas and cruel chains. I mean, sure, some people who leave Christianity do experience a little depression afterward for a short while until they rebuild their worldview with the new, more truthful information they’ve learned. Some people don’t just leap into the sky like superheroes, exultant and delighted, the second they realize that Christianity’s claims aren’t true. I went through a very brief period where I felt absolutely adrift because I’d spent my whole life imagining (falsely) that I had this invisible friend protecting me and being passionately interested in every tiny detail about my life.

But I have to admit that I have never, ever, ever run into an atheist who after years in the worldview still holds that bleak, joyless view of the universe. It doesn’t surprise me that Shane Hayes held that view, though, because we’ve already seen that he doesn’t have the faintest idea what atheism really involves or know anything about how humanity can know what is and isn’t factually true. Maybe there are some atheists out there who really think like that, but I’d argue that those people maybe aren’t actually atheists but Christians on a time-out from their religion.

We do get a little confirmation regarding the timeline of his religious walkabout, though. Last time we talked, I was pretty sure he was only an atheist for a year or so. To my astonishment, in this chapter he reveals that his atheist phase lasted, he says, “most of a decade.” But that sounds pretty vague, doesn’t it? How long was “most of a decade”? If he’s rounding up, that could mean anything from 6 years to 9–because if it’d been a solid 10 or more years, he’d have said “over a decade” or “a decade,” not “most of a decade.” (Yes, Shane Hayes, if you’re reading this, I caught that bit of weaseling.)

Indeed, a post he wrote for Friendly Atheist indicates that the timeline runs thusly: ignorant Christian from birth, then ignorant atheist at 20, then ignorant Hindu/Buddhist at an unnamed point, ignorant “pure theist”–which we’ll talk about in a little while, because trust me, it’s comedy gold–at 28, and then back to being an ignorant Christian again by 30. Looking at his timeline from his own website, midway through there, he tried and failed to be a writer and went back to work for his father, and the “pure theist” phase seems to have started around then. During those early years in atheism, he was “brimming with literary ideas” while globetrotting–which doesn’t sound like he was that upset with the universe. Is it possible that the atheist phase began around the time he began trying to write for a living and was rejecting his previous life, and the bleakness he perceived in atheism maybe was associated with the failure of that attempt to strike out on his own? Because it’s notable that when he got back with his father’s company, his Christianity reasserted itself.

Even so, there’s one thing we’re not taking into account here. And Shane Hayes has certainly completely overlooked that thing himself (and probably hopes we have too):

A person’s happiness level with an idea does not impact its truthfulness even a little.

Maybe this is an excessive liberty I am taking, but I perceive a downright childish vibe here, an indignant, petulant tone to his description of how he perceives atheism and the sense of betrayal and disappointment he describes when he realized that atheism didn’t live up to the standards he’d imagined for it. This is Christian egotism at its very finest. He fully expected atheism to be a “lush Capri of the soul” like his religion had been. When it was not, when it did not offer him those false hopes and illusions that Christianity had that had felt so good, he got visibly upset about something that atheism–as the null hypothesis, remember–doesn’t pretend to offer. He is way more concerned with how an idea makes him feel than he is with whether or not it is actually true.

I find his approach more and more insincere the more I look at it. For example, in this chapter he writes, “I’m a pragmatist, not an evangelist.” But he’s written a book that aims to convert people and he discusses “a new approach to the question of God,” so I find that insistence more than a little disingenuous. When he continues in that vein, this impression of mine gets much stronger:

believing in God can enrich the lives of many who have ignored or rejected that option.

I’m pretty sure he’s not going to offer any really good reasons for believing in any gods, particularly his own, and he doesn’t seem all that interested in anything beyond “enrichment.” It doesn’t really matter if the belief is true or false at its core as long as it “enriches” him.

A true pragmatist would be interested in what can be accomplished the most certainly with the most efficient expenditure of resources. Christianity is not a pragmatic religion–unless someone is certain to profit by it (helLO book publishing contract!). Rank and file believers who haven’t got book contracts (or ministerial positions in prosperous churches) don’t profit by Christianity–except by a promise that after their lives are finished, they shall go to a Heaven whose existence has never once been credibly demonstrated and by vague assurances that their lives will be improved in tangible ways that may not never quite materialize for reasons that will doubtless be laid at their own feet. In hopes of gaining those promises, they will waste their lives parroting nonsense, spending their limited money and time on churches whose function is largely to perpetuate themselves rather than truly help anybody, trying to control outsiders who would rather be left alone, denying facts up and down because they contradict a holy book, and refusing to partake in the full richness of the human experience. And they will waste their lives in this manner because they want to get those earthly rewards (which are not actually credibly demonstrated) and then go to this afterlife that is promised them (which is also not ever actually credibly demonstrated). None of that sounds particularly pragmatic to me.

When Shane Hayes claims that his approach is “pragmatic,” what he’s really saying is that he has found a way to profit off a system that exploits and hurts a great many people and has held humanity back from progress so many times it hurts me to even think about it.

We’re just talking about idealized Christianity here, of course–that “lush Capri” style of Christianity. Of the many vile abuses that Christians have inflicted on humanity, he is silent, but that goes without saying. If he’s benefiting from his beliefs, then those beliefs are good even if they have hurt others. Fuck all y’all–he’s got his.

I’ve run across many Christians who just don’t understand how anybody could ever see anything objectionable about their religion. They act like their religion is SO wonderful and SO glorious and SO fun and SO loving–and I know how that is, because I did it once myself. Unlike Shane Hayes and his atheism, I really was a true-blue Christian. I really felt flummoxed when people said they thought my religion sounded abusive or that my god sounded like a total dickweed. I suspect this guy’s wearing the same blinkers I did once.

I don’t think Shane Hayes has actually talked to a lot of atheists if he refers to his opinion as “the radiant view” (emphasis his), which implies that any other view is the opposite of radiant. And to him, that radiance matters more than whether or not something is true or false or is demonstrably harmful to people’s sanity and well-being.

When they don’t have facts to base their opinions on, Christians end up having to push the religion’s perceived positive social aspects, or their erroneous conception of its society-civilizing effects, or their obliviously shortsighted view of how happy it makes (some) adherents. Obviously, this author is not going to explain why we should choose either between Christianity and atheism if we want to be happy; he doesn’t offer a single word about why paganism, for example, couldn’t make someone just as happy. If all things being the same was actually the case, which it isn’t, but if it were, then why not go for something more affirming, loving, progressive, and science-friendly? Nope! Atheism = sadface, and Christianity = happyface. That’s all he cares about. Those are the two choices.

What’s really mind-blowing, though, is that even he can’t keep up the pretense that Christianity is make-happy-feel-good. In this very first chapter, he briefly alludes to the fearmongering threats woven all through Christianity:

And if this life is harder because we have rejected belief in God, a future life might be harder still because we’ve done so.

Oh, really? Is he actually going there? Because I can go there too. Oh yes, I can indeed.

As we’ve seen so many times before, when every other argument has proven unpersuasive, a toxic Christian will yank out the threats of eternal torture at the hands of his radiant, Capri-island, joy-giving, enrichment-providing god. Shane Hayes only hints at the threat here, but the mere fact that he included it tells me that it’s definitely a factor in his pretense of Christianity. He also briefly mentions that he likes this religion better than atheism because it gives him hope of seeing his dead relatives again one day–a bit of callous emotional manipulation if there ever was one. I don’t know about you, but I find it downright offensive that he’d ever hold out false hope to someone who has lost a dear relative. “Recite this completely nonsensical magic spell and see your mother again one day!”

(OH, FUCK YOU, SHANE HAYES. FUCK YOU IN THE NECK. FUCK YOU, FUCK THE HORSE YOU RODE IN ON, FUCK THE GUY WHO SOLD YOU THAT HORSE, AND FUCK THE TOTAL STRANGER WHO FED IT APPLES. BUT ESPECIALLY, COMPLETELY, PARTICULARLY, GALACTICALLY, SPECTACULARLY: FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU FOR GOING THERE.)

My mother is dead. I will probably never see her again. That’s how it is. I don’t like the idea of never seeing her again, but I need to come to grips with that loss instead of chasing dragons trying to get her back, and I will work it out just like billions of other people have before me. Death is scary, but it’s part of the human condition. I don’t think Christianity deals well with that part. I don’t think it’s healthy to grasp at straws held out by opportunistic, manipulative, pandering frauds instead of spending my time and resources in honest growth. I’d rather have honest loss than false hope. It’s shameless and cruel to hold out that false hope, just as it is to threaten someone with an eternity of torture he doesn’t even have evidence for, but hey, anything to convert someone, right?

So to this apologetics author–as with a great many of his peers–lovely perfect Christianity is the best option because it is radiant even when it isn’t, gives joy except when it doesn’t, provides enrichment for him at least even if it penalizes and hurts a bunch of other people but who cares about them, gives him the illusion that he’ll see his dead relatives again one day so he doesn’t have to come to grips with their loss, and will maybe keep him out of an eternity of torture at the hands of his purely benevolent Capri-island god.

By contrast, mean ole atheism is a bleak windswept icy hellhole that doesn’t make false promises or give him false happiness, doesn’t make excuses for why reality looks like it does, doesn’t deny science, doesn’t give him false and deceptive hopes, and doesn’t threaten to torture him forever if he denies its nonexistent blandishments.

Wait, tell me again why atheism is the bad choice here?

In conclusion, I’d rather make my own happiness on honest terms than to take an illusion veiling threats and cruel false hopes. Shane Hayes has said absolutely nothing here to make me think that his “new approach” is either new or even really an approach. He’s deluded himself quite deliberately and thinks that it is a novel and good thing that he has done so.

We’re going to continue talking about this chapter’s errors next time, but I wanted to take a minute to specifically discuss this weird idea before we do that. Next time, we’re going to cover his idea that beliefs are a choice. It ought to be fun–please do join me. (We’ll be talking about Antarctica, too! Because he’s wrong about that as well!)

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Shane Hayes, Part 2: Dorkness and Lies.

Last time we talked about the author Shane Hayes and his new book, The End of Unbelief, which is supposed to be the new singing dancing apologetics book to persuade atheists into converting. I’ll be talking today about just how Mr. Hayes conceptualizes belief and faith in his preface, “Darkness and Light,” and why he’s wrong.

Of course, like pretty much every other apologetics book on the market, this book is actually going to be purchased by Christians eager to slurp up any excuse they can find to continue believing they’re not insane for believing in Jesus and who are eager to find surefire zingers they can sling at their non-believing soulwinning targets. The market isn’t non-Christians, whatever these books pretend. The goal isn’t really conversion at all–it’s making money off gullible people. That’s why apologetics books aimed at rank-and-file believers sell so well yet backfire so badly when it comes to actually converting anybody.

English: 1. Believers 2. Religion 3. Atheists ...

English: 1. Believers 2. Religion 3. Atheists 4. Science (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These works have an agenda, and it is not presenting information clearly and succinctly, nor in gathering actual evidence for claims. I’ve never seen an apologetics book that actually presented honest, concise information in a straightforward manner–and I’ve read a lot of these things. Like the Christians who put so much faith in these books, apologetics authors constantly mistake fancy-sounding arguments for evidence, push long-ago-debunked talking points as gospel truth, and paint non-believers in disgustingly cartoonish and inaccurate ways. The authors write like that because they know that their audience is going to be Christians who already think much like they do and thus won’t need persuading on those points.

There’s a mighty fine reason why non-Christians, on the other hand, tend to deeply distrust apologetics as a field. As a rule of thumb, nothing actually factual needs bookstores’ worth of interpretative works to persuade people it even exists. Nobody needs reams of paper wasted on whether or not the Quadratic Equation is factual. Philosophical ideas and political positions may well need that kind of treatment, but Christians rightly recoil from comparing their god (who almost every Christian alive believes is 100% literally real) with those intellectual conceptualizations. And, too, apologetics authors are downright nasty to non-believers. We get painted as idiots, malevolent jerks, and way worse in their books–to hear them talk about it, we all know, deep down, that this god is literally real and we’re just denying it so we can pork our brains out with whoever doesn’t move fast enough to avoid us, to party down a bit before we die and get condemned forever to Hell for being so childishly pettish and petulant as to not have the brilliant forethought and wisdom (like Christians have) to swear allegiance to Jesus before it was too late.

So does Shane Hayes fall into that apologetics trap of using arguments, demonization of non-believers, and manipulation in lieu of evidence?

Unfortunately, yes. He is not going to be the combo breaker of apologetics with this new book. I’ll spoil it right now by saying that it’s pretty awful–on a scale of 0 to Ray Comfort, he’s about an 8 on the self-serving, delusional pandering meter. And what’s worse (to me at least) is that he’s presenting himself as someone who has actually been a member of the atheist tribe, which puts him into the position of guru to his fellow Christians–his claim makes him sound like he knows what he’s talking about when he talks about atheists and non-belief. But he totally doesn’t know what he’s talking about! He very likely will make Christians think even less of non-Christians in general and of atheists in particular–and remember, a lot of their low opinion is based on other Christians spouting off about stuff they don’t really understand.

With all that said, let’s dive in.

We’re going to talk first about his dramatic-sounding preface, “Darkness and Light.” In it, he sets the tone for the rest of the book. This part begins: “We are nocturnal creatures. Darkness is our element.” And with that, we are two sentences into his book and already I want to paste a “(citation needed)” on his butt.

Humans are not, in fact, nocturnal creatures, and darkness is not, in fact, our “element,” whatever that means. He doesn’t actually define what he means here, but by any rational evaluation of the word, humans aren’t nocturnal. We don’t operate very well in darkness. Just as a start, here’s a study that found that working night shift may actually put humans at greater risk of cancer. Our bodies release sleep chemicals when nighttime gets dark–not during the day, and not even at night if the lights are too bright. Our eyes don’t see well in the dark. Our bodies walk upright, so it’s hard not to stumble in the dark because we just can’t see what’s at ground level at night. He’s talking like we’re panthers in the jungle or something, and that’s just not true.

I realize he’s using this opening line as a way of setting up the premise to follow (and riffing on a number of Bible verses speaking metaphorically about believers walking in the “light” and non-believers walking in “darkness”), but by any demonstrable measurement he’s just flat out wrong. If he’s trying to prove that something exists, using poetic license and inaccurate science doesn’t seem like a good tactic.

Then there’s this:

The future is shrouded in deep mist and shadow. We can’t see very clearly and we can’t see very far, so we feel our way, grope, and guess at what’s ahead. Faith is our candle, flickering, dim, uncertain, but necessary. Faith in science, faith in our institutions and calculations, faith in luck, faith in God. There are many kinds of faith. We live by one or more of them. Without it we weaken, we fall, we perish.

And now we can say, definitively, that whatever this guy is calling atheism, it wasn’t anything that modern atheists understand by the term–and that he doesn’t understand what faith is either.

Modern Christians–fundagelicals especially–tend to fall into the trap of mistaking informed belief in something with faith in that thing. “Haha, look, we all believe stupid things that can’t be proven, so why not this stupid unproven thing instead of that stupid unproven thing?” you can hear them saying. Mr. Hayes is conflating the demonstrated trustworthiness of the scientific method with blind faith in a religion that’s never once had any of its supernatural claims confirmed in a credible manner–but which has seen every one of its testable claims fail when critically examined. The other faiths he describes are just fluff–nobody seriously lives their life by a faith in “luck” and nobody sane trusts in “institutions” or uses calculations in a way that makes sense of a definition of faith; what he’s really doing is trying to draw a similarity between science and religion, which is why he put one of those terms at one end of that list and the other at the other end of it.

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scientific Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Not shown: Blind faith.

And he’s simply wrong here too. I do believe the scientific method is the single best way humanity has ever devised of arriving at facts and explanations for our universe. I believe that because there hasn’t ever emerged a better way of doing it and we’ve tested it enough to know that it’s true. If another one emerges, I’ll start believing that’s the best way to find out how things work. I know that its conclusions are wrong sometimes, and that some of the details it describes may change as we get better information, but the scientific method corrects itself by its very nature. Shams and frauds get discovered and debunked. Nobody is held in such high esteem that nothing he or she says is sacrosanct and unquestionable; no idea is so well-respected that it just isn’t questioned or criticized if evidence emerges against it. So this concept is trustworthy. I don’t have faith in it because I don’t need to have faith to trust in it. There’s no need for me to have faith, which is by definition belief in something for no good reason whatsoever. I have lots of good reasons to have trust in the scientific method.

Notice, please, that not a single thing I just wrote could apply to Christianity. That Shane Hayes spent time as an atheist–a self-described militant one no less–and didn’t know what the critical distinctions were between religion and the scientific method is nothing short of stunning. Though I hesitate to assign essentialist thinking to atheists, who are a wild and woolly bunch if ever there was one, I thought that was one of the first things atheists figured out. Hell, I’d think that this realization of the huge difference between religion and the scientific method figured prominently into most atheists’ deconversions. But these ex-atheist Christians seem to uniformly miss that memo. It’s easy to demonize the scientific method if someone just doesn’t understand it. And Shane Hayes really needs us to demonize the scientific method for his forthcoming argument to make any sense. He needs us to distrust it the same way we distrust religion. He needs us to put science on the same shelf as religious nonsense. Because nothing he’s about to say can be demonstrated in any kind of credible way, he needs us to think that nothing at all really can be.

And did you catch the false dilemma that he sets up that without faith in something, anything, no matter how stupid, we “weaken, fall, and perish”? Really? So it doesn’t matter if something’s right or wrong as long as it’s something, or else we’ll just wither up and die? I guess I’m doing it all wrong then.

In the next paragraph, he informs us that:

Not only Scripture but all of human experience tells us we need something strong, good, and wise to believe in. For some, it’s a statue of Zeus or Sophia; for some, kinetic theory and the empirical method; for some, the writings of a brilliant atheist; for some, Confucius, Buddha, Allah, the God of Abraham, or (for me) Christ.

If you look at his list, you’ll see that one of these things is not like the other. See what he did again there? He slyly snuck in “kinetic theory and the empirical method” along with religious ideas. I’ve got to wonder if he really thinks that way or if he’s just pandering to fundagelicals who need to believe that non-Christians do the same ridiculous things they do.

Not even pagans “believe in” statues, by the way. Statues aren’t really gods. They’re representations of gods. You’d think a fellow who was raised Catholic would understand that distinction. And yes, I noticed that he wrote a statue of instead of just saying “Zeus or Sophia.” That’s a curious show of disrespect considering he was okay with talking about the other gods. Why do Zeus and Sophia–whoever that is, because I sure don’t know of any gods named Sophia–only rate statues? I’d also mention that Allah, the “God of Abraham,” and the Christian god are all the same being. It’s downright odd that he’d word it “Christ” like that but dance around the fact that Jesus Christ is considered to be a manifestation of the Christian god. It’s also odd that he’d lump Confucius and Buddha into the list of gods, when neither religion generally thinks that they were actually gods. Of his list, then, he’s got two men who are not traditionally understood to be gods and one god who goes by three different names, and two statues–one of a god and one of something called “Sophia”–that nobody worships because nobody actually thinks statues are gods. It’s almost as if he really doesn’t understand other religions well enough to talk about them, isn’t it? (Didn’t he claim to have been Buddhist too at some point–and yet he doesn’t know that critical detail about Buddha?)

And as I’ve already mentioned, he’s really not clear on what belief even is here if he thinks that faith-driven belief in a religion equates to informed belief and trust in scientific concepts. That said, it’s interesting he chose kinetic theory rather than evolutionary theory to lump in with the unproven, non-credible claims of religion. I don’t know of any Christians who dispute kinetic theory or hold that it requires faith to form an opinion that gases behave in particular ways. That was a weird thing to include on the list, but I can easily imagine he put it in there because nobody rational disputes those ideas.

He wants us to lump these taken-for-granted scientific ideas in with the unproven-and-unprovable religious ideas and think of them as one unit. That’s strikingly intellectually dishonest. But that’s what quite a few Christians think. I certainly grew up thinking that Jesus was just as solidly proven as the science I was learning in school. It wasn’t until college that I began to learn that no, actually, nothing about my religion was actually credibly demonstrated. Now it’s not at all uncommon to see Christians argue that non-believers just don’t want to accept all this “proof” they think they have. You don’t see atheists making that mistake very often though.

Shane Hayes ends his preface by saying

To believe is to hold as true what cannot yet be verified. It’s a conviction, a sense of direction, that helps us move bravely through our darkness. And face what lies beyond it–the blackness of utter extinction or endless light.

Again, citation needed. There are so many things wrong with these few sentences that they’d want a whole post of their own to discuss it all, but in a nutshell: he’s trying to make all beliefs sound like they’re underpinned by faith. But not all beliefs are informed by faith. I have very good reasons to believe that the scientific method works and that my family loves me and that the sun will rise tomorrow. I don’t have to have faith to believe those things. Those beliefs are formed by the facts I’ve observed and learned. Faith is what you have to have to believe in stuff that can’t be verified or is debunked. Christians have to have faith in their god because every one of their religion’s claims either can’t be verified or have been debunked. But nobody has to have faith in kinetic theory to believe it happens.

Nor does one require faith in unproven claims to have a sense of direction or a conviction. It’s simply shocking to see what Christians think of non-Christians, isn’t it? I wonder sometimes if people like Shane Hayes look out at the mass of unwashed heathens howling and milling outside his ivory tower and sees them all as barely-sentient beasts, shitting themselves and rutting uncontrollably and murdering each other over trifles. In his world, without faith in unproven claims people can’t even “move bravely through our darkness,” much less “face what lies beyond it.” Had he actually talked to anybody who doesn’t buy into religious claims, though, he’d learn that non-believers have lots of direction and convictions. And maybe he’d learn the critical difference between informed belief and faith-driven belief that he didn’t learn as a “militant atheist.”

Look, anybody who claims to know what lies beyond this life is lying through their teeth. He certainly doesn’t know any better than I do, or you, or anybody else. But this author seems to care less about what actually happens after death than he does about just clinging to some hope, even if it’s false, about it. Certainly atheists and non-Christians don’t worry overmuch as a group about what happens after we die. That’s a manufactured fear for him that we just don’t share. He’s trying to manufacture a similar fear for non-believers so they’ll be more receptive to the bullshit he’ll be peddling in the next section.

And sorry, but I ain’t buying.

In the preface, we learn that Shane Hayes doesn’t really understand the scientific method or know much about other religions. He really doesn’t understand much about what being nocturnal is either. He dishonestly lumps actual real things in with unproven things to make people think of them together, dishonestly sticks his blind irrational faith on the same shelf as stuff we actually can determine is true or false, and dishonestly hints that anybody lacking faith is not even really human and doomed to “weakening, falling, and perishing.” In this preface, he plays very well to Christians’ misconceptions of atheists and non-believers and makes them feel smug about and confident in their own irrational beliefs by laying them alongside very rational ones.

A pity nothing in it is actually true.

Here is the truth about beliefs: they are informed by the information we have at hand. They change as we engage with new information and learn new facts. A Christian uses faith as a substitute for information, forming beliefs from a vast well of non-credible, unproven ideas. You can’t force belief to happen; the underlying ideas and facts are what form beliefs–and for that matter destroy them.

People don’t necessarily believe in things that are “strong, good, and wise”–some beliefs are about how we sometimes behave in terrible ways, or about natural disasters about to hit, for example. Some of these beliefs help us survive by getting us out of bad situations; I once had a belief that an elevator was faulty in a building in which I worked, and avoiding that elevator meant I wasn’t in it when it indeed broke and crashed two floors down one evening. I didn’t have faith in the elevator’s weakness; I believed it was dangerous because it creaked a lot and jiggled weirdly and felt unsafe to ride. But I also believed at the same time that the people in my church were intrinsically better people than non-Christians were–a belief which was based on faith, not facts, and which was disproven any number of times before I finally accepted it. Like most people have, I experienced a lot of unnecessary drama and pain as a result of that belief, so it certainly wasn’t “strong, good, and wise” to believe that idea was true. When I did accept at last that Christians were no better and no worse than non-Christians, my beliefs about Christians’ morals changed without my even being aware of the shift at first.

So yes: atheists have a lot of beliefs. So do other non-Christians. They just try really hard to have those beliefs be informed by actual facts rather than blind faith. Sometimes they’ll be wrong, sometimes they’ll form irrational beliefs just like anybody, but they’re at least trying (which is also something we can also say about the scientific method itself!). And because Christianity’s claims are not informed by actual facts, non-believers who care about facts won’t be able to form a belief in Christianity. No matter how good an argument sounds, if there are no actual facts behind Shane Hayes’ ideas, then it’s all just noise to someone who has critical thinking skills and isn’t tricked by a fancy argument used in lieu of real evidence. I’m deeply suspicious at this point that an argument is all he has, and that similar argument trickery is what drew him back into Christianity after his brief flirtations with atheism and Buddhism and whatnot.

This is long enough, so we’ll have to cover what he actually thinks is his slam-dunk argument in favor of Christianity next time. I wasn’t expecting to get hung up on the preface for this long. But I would like to conclude thusly:

I remember what it was like to realize that the reasons I had for converting to Pentecostalism were simply untrue. I’d been operating under false premises and the decisions I made as a result were deeply flawed. I was downright humiliated to think I’d been taken in so thoroughly, but I did eventually figure things out. I wonder if Shane Hayes will ever have the shame to realize that whatever got him into atheism and out of it again was clearly erroneous. If he’s basing his conversion to Christianity on the idea that, well, everybody believes stupid things and it might as well be this stupid thing as that other stupid thing, then wow, I hope for his sake that his god, if he does turn out to be real, is easily fooled. I could never convert to a religion on that basis.

It matters to me if what I spend my life believing is true or false. My beliefs inform my actions and worldview, and even influence how I live and spend my limited time and money and resources. He may be content with believing any old guff if it makes him feel good, but I can’t do it. If I’m wrong about a belief of mine, I need to know it so I can correct the problem, so I’m making decisions and spending my resources as wisely as possible. If this life is indeed the only one I’ll ever get, then I definitely don’t want to waste it.

So please join me next time as I examine this book’s first chapter: “An Agnostic Argues for Faith.”

Posted in Religion, Guides, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

The Cult of Before Stories: Shane Hayes, Part 1.

A while ago, Kirk Cameron popularized a fairly-new evangelism technique: claiming that he knows all about atheism because he, himself, was once an (gasp! Shock! OMG!) atheist. He thought it gave him some kind of leg up on authority and credibility to say that he’d once been an atheist, and though the attempt backfired hilariously on him, I saw the approach spread like wildfire among Christians who began using it as well. Now it’s one of the big trendy things I see Christians saying to non-Christians, and you’ve probably seen the book that resulted most recently from that mindset.

It is written by Shane Hayes and is called The End of Unbelief: A New Approach to the Question of God, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more blatantly dishonest book title than that one–because it is not a new approach at all to the “question” of the existence of the particular god described in the Bible, as we’ll see. It was written, however, by a fellow who claims that he was once an atheist and then converted to Christianity, which he thinks gives his ideas more merit than they would have if he’d been a lifelong Christian.

Christian Atheist (Peter Lumsden, d. 2007)

Christian Atheist (Peter Lumsden, d. 2007) (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Dafuq did I just see

I think that in the last few decades at least (and probably longer), Christians have tried to have their testimonies draw from the big Christian fears of the moment. Back in my day, the trendy testimonies involved pasts in Satanism and Wicca because those were the big fears at the height of the Satanic Panic. Christians were convinced, thanks to irresponsible lying evangelists like Mike Warnke and books like This Present Darkness, that there was this huge, organized, Mafia-like network of Wiccan Satanists (or was it Satanic Wiccans?) out kidnapping children, torturing black cats, and seducing innocent young Christian women into debauchery and hooking innocent young Christian men on drugs, D&D, and easy sex.

Now the boogeyman that threatens to destroy families and seduce kids away from Jesus is atheism. At least it’s a slightly more realistic fear, but the exact way Christians fear atheism is, as with the previous scares, rather blown-up and insultingly inaccurate, resulting in all kinds of weird misunderstandings about just what non-belief looks like.

There are still a lot of Christians who, like me back in my day, don’t really know any atheists (that they know of, at least). And I’ve run into Christians who also don’t think they know any ex-Christians in real life. It’s a sure bet that they actually do, even in the most Christocentric of all Christian areas; many ex-Christians and atheists have to camouflage themselves and slide under the radar to keep their families and employment intact. Sometimes those hidden souls are even behind the pulpit; sometimes they sit beside their Christian peers in pews every Sunday; sometimes they work the lights or sound systems so they can escape having to pretend they’re more engaged than they really are. Often they’re young people–teens even–who know that revealing disbelief means possibly losing their parents’ affection and getting thrown out of their homes. But the point is that Christians very often don’t know that they already know at least a few atheists and ex-Christians.

Combine that lack of personal connection with a lot of demonization and dehumanization of both atheists and ex-Christians, and you get Christians who pretty much will believe anything anybody says about people in those groups. They don’t know better, so when a source they think is authoritative puffs him- or herself up and says something like “atheists don’t have any purpose in life,” they’re very likely going to just swallow that poisonous brew. Or they’ll hear that ex-Christians just left the religion “to sin.” Then they’ll trot those lines out in a forum somewhere, since they don’t actually know any real sources to set the record straight, and get demolished as atheist after atheist comes in to say, in some confusion, that actually they feel their lives are very purposeful, or these chirpy Christians will see throngs of ex-Christians who tell them that actually they live way more moral lives now than they ever did while Christian. At that point, those demolished Christians will have to decide what they believe more: the authoritative source they so foolishly trusted, or the actual people standing before them who are shredding that source’s authority to bits.

Most of them will go with the former, alas. This ignorance opens the door for authoritative-sounding people to meander into their vision claiming to have been atheists and whatnot. These people spout the same tired clichés and debunked talking-points that non-Christians have been dealing with since forever, but they find some new way to say them that sounds very impressive to their target audience–who, again, don’t generally know anybody they can actually talk to about this stuff, and who certainly aren’t making a big habit out of seeking out dissenting sources to help them evaluate the claims they’re hearing. Let’s face it: the entire religion as a whole isn’t real big on teaching its adherents how to think critically and assess claims.

So let’s look at this new book. I’m going to be quoting from the Amazon preview so you can follow along. I’m assuming that the publisher chose the best bits of the book to put into the preview to entice people into wanting to buy it, so it seems fair to me to judge the book based on that preview. I’m going to go stream-of-consciousness here. Feel free to follow along.

The rah-rah blurb on the front cover says that “this is an unusual, deeply felt, utterly logical, and persuasive book. . . An excellent contribution to the great theological debate.” This unequivocal thumbs-up is from Paul Theroux, a rather questionable sort of person to quote on the cover of a book aimed at convincing atheists to convert. He’s an author (he wrote The Mosquito Coast) who has quite a few controversies in his background. He has never actually written anything theological that I can tell, doesn’t appear to have a theological or ministerial background, and generally doesn’t seem like the sort of fellow one turns to in order to pump a book about religion. A novelist, however celebrated, doesn’t necessarily have the credentials to evaluate a religious argument. Basically, I don’t see why I should give a shit what Paul Theroux thinks of this book. I’d be a lot more impressed if they’d gotten someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson or some top lawyer or doctor to review this thing. Too bad C.S. Lewis and JRRT are dead, huh? So we’re not off to a great start. I’m downright baffled by this choice and we’re not even past the top third of the cover yet.

Notice as well that at the bottom, there’s a little insert there for the word “former” before “atheist” in “Arguments & Stories by the former atheist Shane Hayes.” Sounds kind of twee and manipulative. This book isn’t just “a new approach to the question of God.” It’s absolutely making sure we know that the book is written by someone who claims to have once been an atheist.

Hoo boy. Moving on. We’ve got some slightly more credible endorsements following that, though not a single one from any atheists who changed their minds as a result of Mr. Hayes’ book–in fact, quite the opposite, with atheists saying that no, they weren’t convinced. That’s not really a good sign, all things told, but okay, let’s keep going.

Oh, he uses “discrete” correctly. I like that. There’s not enough love in this world for the word “discrete.” But then he goes on to say something ridiculously ignorant in that introduction:

“Part One is pure argument. It takes on the New Atheism, showing that it is a belief system, not a proven theory, and that it offers less to rational thinkers than faith in God does.”

What the fuck?

Seriously…. what the fucking fuck?

As a dear friend of mine says, hold my bra.

Okay, look. Y’all know I don’t identify as an atheist. But that’s largely semantics. I may feel like I’m a little too friendly toward spirituality to qualify as a true-blue Scarlet A, but I know what evidence is and I don’t go in for woo. I know that nothing supernatural–including every single supernatural truth claim made by every religion ever–has ever been credibly demonstrated. I know the definitions around atheism, though, and clearly I know those definitions better than the guy who claims he was once a “militant” atheist.

To anybody reading this who maybe doesn’t know better yet: NO, atheism is not a belief system. It’s not a proven theory, either, because it can’t be, and I don’t know any atheists who would say otherwise. Mr. Hayes is making a strawman here to tilt at, and you know it’s because his strawman’s a lot easier to engage with than the truth. So here’s the truth: atheism is a reaction to religions’ lack of evidence for their claims. That’s it. You can’t “believe” in atheism, as in you physically can’t, as in it’s not something that anybody could believe in because it’s not structured as a belief and indeed it can’t be. And it doesn’t “offer” anything to those who identify as atheists because it can’t offer anything by its very nature. It’s the absence of belief, the null hypothesis. By definition it isn’t going to be able to offer anything to anybody.

That’s not a bug in atheism, folks. That’s a feature. That’s a good thing. He’s implying it’s a bad thing, but only Christians–with their manufactured need for a belief system that offers them benefits–could actually be bothered by that facet of atheism. I’ve certainly never met any atheists who had a problem with it.

And let’s face it: just because something makes adherents feel good doesn’t mean it’s true. Indeed, “faith in God” may offer all sorts of things to adherents, but that doesn’t mean those things are true, and it certainly doesn’t mean that those promises will be fulfilled. Promises and offers are cheap to make. Moreover, “faith in God” can offer me anything it wants, but I can’t just force myself to believe in something because it promises me lots of goodies. If anything, I could get myself to mouth belief, but it wouldn’t be real belief.

Part Two is apparently going to be about how he had a big “crisis of faith”–at seventeen years old–and was helped out of it by a Trappist monk. Wow. I’ve got no words. This sounds so damned insufferable and self-important to me already. But Trappists are pretty cool folks so that’s nice. Glad he ran into one. I knew some in Kansas and they were hoopy froods. Nothing like a “wise man in the desert” encounter to boost a story’s resonance. I understand that the idea has found its way into a few other popular narratives.

Part Three is going to tell us all about how he moved through “atheism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, to Pure Theism. . . and finally back to Christianity.”

Holy shit, so he was raised Catholic, then went through all those phases starting at around what, seventeen? Wait just a damn minute, how old is this guy? (Rushing to another window right quick on my Mac now.) Oh my gosh, this guy is really old. He comes off sounding like one of those arrogant college bros who reads a lot of Ayn Rand, but he’s apparently in his 70s. And that’s okay, obviously, people are allowed to be old, but finding out his age makes the shallow nature of his assertions seem all the more striking to me.

His website asserts that he was an “ardent Catholic (nearly a Trappist monk at seventeen), to militant atheist at twenty, to dilettante Hindu/Buddhist, to Pure Theist. . . to a Christian studying for the ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary.” He conspicuously doesn’t provide a timeline for anything after the atheism, so we don’t know how long that lasted, but at 24 he writes that he quit his job after college to try writing as a career, which didn’t pan out, so I’m guessing that all this religious bed-hopping didn’t last that long. If the order of religions is correct and we give him a year or so for each of the other ones, then atheism wasn’t more than a blip on the radar of his spiritual searching. That silly insertion on the cover–“FORMER atheist”–might as well have read “former Hindu” or “former Buddhist.” Or “former Catholic.” Sounds like he was Catholic more than just about anything else. But it says “former atheist.” I’m liking this whole book less and less. It really doesn’t sound like he really did much with the atheism; he certainly doesn’t seem to have learned much about it, as “militant” as he was.

By the way, it’s my personal impression and experience that when you see someone doing a lot of that religion-hopping, especially when it’s really disparate religions, that seems to me to be someone who is looking desperately for something and not finding it in those religions. That’s someone who thinks that religions can and do offer and promise things, and cycles through these religions trying each one on and discarding it as he or she realizes that the promises didn’t pan out–or that there weren’t enough promises. I’ve done it myself, and for me the cycle didn’t really end till I realized that what I was seeking in those external sources was stuff I needed to do for myself. I’d been going around to all these different religions and philosophies like a starving child with a begging-bowl looking for scraps, when all that time I had a feast in my own heart that I’d overlooked. Looking back, I don’t hold against those religions that they weren’t what I needed right then. Nothing could have been. What I needed wasn’t something you could have fed me from an external source. I eventually found what I sought, and I’m at peace now–and sufficient within myself. And I wonder if maybe that same problem is what I’m seeing in this list of religions–recited with such obvious pride, as if trying them all on in such rapid succession was some kind of positive distinction. I don’t know enough to say for sure but I’ve seen this kind of claim many times before, so I think it’s worth mentioning briefly now.

Okay, let’s head back to the introduction. Now it makes a lot of sense that he’d include quotes in this part about how “subtle” and “unsearchable” and “inscrutable” the Bible’s god is. Sounds like we’re getting set up for an argument from ignorance–“We can’t know this god’s ways, so therefore Jesus.” Oh yay, and apparently in Part Three we’ll be putting the problem of evil on trial in a mock courtroom. Not surprising, considering Mr. Hayes was a lawyer at one point according to that biography I dug up; when all you have is a hammer, then everything starts looking like a nail. But lawyers don’t determine the truth; they win arguments. And an argument can be won or lost and that has nothing to do with whether or not it’s true. It really sounds like Mr. Hayes has fallen into that very common apologetics trap of mistaking a good-sounding argument for evidence for a religion’s claims. He might be okay with wasting his life on something based on a good-sounding argument, but it matters to me if what I believe is true or false. And arguments don’t uncover truth. Observable, measurable evidence does. And I’m not thinking he’s got any, based on this bit. That’s why he’s printed those quotes there: because he needs to make wanting evidence sound like a bad thing, and more importantly to make not having evidence sound like a good thing.

Part Four is apparently a retelling of his mother’s life and death, which doesn’t really form an argument in favor of Christianity, but okay. Christians usually see great value in personal testimonies; I don’t think non-Christians do in general, but I’m the last person to tell someone he can’t write about his mother. The last bit is apparently about how a guy who sees himself as “philosophically agnostic yet passionately Christian” perceives his religion and his savior. That phrase sounds weird to me–sort of like saying “short tall person” or “plastic cotton tablecloth”–and doesn’t bode well. I knew a lady once who called herself a “Christian sorceress” and did magic rituals and stuff, and it made about as much sense as this guy being two things that are diametrically opposed. And if he’s using the word “agnostic” correctly, then he knows he really doesn’t have any proof for his claims–and that there may not be any proof at all–which means diddly divided by squat as far as persuading anybody with critical thinking skills.

Jesus Christ, this is long, sorry! I’m going to wrap this up and take on Part 1’s excerpt next time. Let me close this first part thusly, though:

Part of me really thinks that Christians give people like Mr. Hayes a soapbox because he tells them what they want to hear about atheists and about non-believers in general. But he is not telling them accurate things, as I can see already, and I wish it mattered more to his audience that those things aren’t accurate. He’s not being perfectly honest about just how long this atheist phase of his was, unless he outlines it elsewhere.

So basically this is another entry in the Cult of Before Stories. It really sounds like he’s blowing up his pre-Christian atheism to sound a lot more impressive and defining of an experience than it really was. It’d be just as dishonest for me to say something similar about the very brief time I sat zazen (seriously, didn’t most of us do something along those lines?) and bill myself as a former Zen Buddhist. His atheism sounds an awful lot like the atheism we’ve seen many times before in Christians’ testimonies: just a simple rumspringa, a bit of a walkabout from Christianity, some phase of anger or spite, that got itself corrected and sorted out and he came trotting home to Christianity once he’d gotten that blaze of anger out of his system.

And that doesn’t mean we say that he wasn’t a TRUE ATHEIST™. There are probably a lot more people like that than we want to think about. If he says he was an atheist for that short time, then fine, I’m not going to gainsay him. But so far it’s not looking like he was an atheist who cultivated critical thinking skills, and that’s what’s more important than the label. I don’t call myself an atheist, but I do try hard to cultivate those skills. He bills himself as a former atheist, but he didn’t bother. Once again we see that the label isn’t the important part. I admit, too, that I’m really bugged by this suspicion I have of the author’s self-centered dishonesty. I shouldn’t be surprised; I did after all write the “book” (well, blog series anyway) for Christians exaggerating their pre-conversion stories for personal gain. But it still bugs me.

Take this for what it’s worth, but a commenter over at Patheos who claims to know the author personally doesn’t believe a word of his breathlessly-earnest claim:

The man (Mr. Hayes) was NOT raised atheist. He was raised in an intensely Christian family. I know him well. . . I would also add, from personal acquaintance, that for most of his life he was a devout believer. The “atheistic” period was, I suspect, a relatively brief, sulky time-out–a personal argument with God. And who can blame him? God –“god”–let’s [sic] a lot of bad things happen.

So while I hesitate to doubt Christians’ stories of having been atheists, it seems quite clear that if this claim is true, then my suspicion is confirmed: the author was hardly deeply invested in disbelief; it was really just a short phase as I’m suspecting, and the skeptic community is right to hold his feet to the fire and not accept the label alone as a substitute for intellectual rigor.

But Christians will eat this shit up with a spoon and ask for more. OMG! A REAL LIVE ATHEIST CONVERTED TO CHRISTIANITY! WE FINALLY GOT ONE! They’ll flock to him and look up to him to tell them all about the dreaded tribe of atheism that he escaped. And he’ll tell them, all right.

A pity he won’t be telling them anything reliable.

This time around, we looked at Shane Hayes’ book’s introduction and examined some of his claims about his atheist phase, and I at least sure didn’t find either one very compelling. Please join me next time as we examine what this Christian actually thinks is a compelling argument for belief in his god–and what “belief” actually means in the real world. See you soon!

Posted in Biography, Guides, Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

What’s Your Sign?

I was reading today about some horoscope writer who is sick and about how her fans are very upset that she can’t write their horoscopes on time, and it made me remember some woo I briefly got into in the 90s that I wanted to talk about here.

Susan Miller writes horoscopes for a website called Astrology Zone. She sells books and stuff too, but the horoscopes are actually free. I noticed she also has a whole page devoted to the English toddler-prince’s astrological chart, so if you want to think of this as a popular-astrology site rather than one more esoteric, you’re probably spot-on. Apparently she is hugely popular with a lot of people who depend so much on her free services that they’re busy talking all kinds of trash about her for not getting their horoscopes up in time.

After I left Christianity, I ended up hanging out with a lot of people who were way into astrology in Kansas. There’s not a whole lot to do, so people make their own fun–and that can include making a hobby out of making astrological star charts and whatnot. I ended up learning a lot about it, and in the end, realized there wasn’t a whole lot different about it from my previous involvement in Christianity.

English: Horoscope drawn for the birth of Mart...

English: Horoscope drawn for the birth of Martin Luther appearing in Ebenezer Sibly’s Astrology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People like to feel like they control their lives, and astrology is one of the most pervasive ways of getting that feeling. I’ve never met someone who didn’t at least know his or her star sign. Astrology can make folks feel like they have more control than they really do over events that can feel terrifyingly random. Ever since humanity awakened, we’ve been convinced that the stars held answers for us on Earth. The Catholic Church might not have cared for it much, but even in universities in the early Middle Ages, astrology was on the curriculum. You may know the name Tycho Brahe, but you might not know he was into astrology as well as astronomy (and alchemy). Despite denunciations from the Church, the practice of fortune-telling and astrology persisted; even the very most Christian of rulers refused to take certain actions until the stars seemed favorable to the proposed venture, so they generally had official astrologers in their courts who were consulted about what the stars had to say about just about everything.

And there is something very compelling about the idea of faraway celestial bodies all having some influence in the lives of puny mortals on Earth, isn’t there? Not that I think even the most fanatical of astrology fans think those bodies care overmuch one way or the other, but it’s got to feel flattering to imagine that thousands of lightyears away, some faraway star whirling around in a vast Catherine wheel of beautiful plasma-fire is pushing a currently-unknown opportunity or soulmate closer and closer. Life feels like such a big crapshoot so often that it’s hard to resist the lure of someone claiming to see a great pattern in it all–and to be able to use that pattern to predict the largely-random events that buffet us all.

So in the same way that someone sends chain letters because “who knows, it might work,” even as the truest of all true-blue Pentecostals I still checked out my horoscope in the newspaper every day. I might have cringed a bit internally that I was doing it, or denied taking them all that seriously, but I still read them. They were right there on the comics page, for crying out loud–what was I supposed to do, just not read words sitting right next to stuff I was reading?

It didn’t feel like committing a mortal sin at the time–I was just reading, for goodness’ sake, surely reading was okay as long as I didn’t do anything sinful as a result of having read those horoscopes. That was how I justified a practice that pretty much every single source I could find condemns in the strongest possible terms. Seriously, I couldn’t even find a source that was even vaguely okay with just reading a newspaper horoscope. Considering astrology is bullshit, their firmness doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we’re talking about folks who believe in supernatural stuff anyway.

And I can’t say I didn’t know my church condemned astrology–I was a member during the very nadir of the Satanic Panic. Oh yes, I knew perfectly well that they condemned even the casual reading of a newspaper horoscope. But I, being a compulsive reader, couldn’t just skip it on the comics page even under threat of my immortal soul being condemned to eternal torture forever and ever and ever because of the cosmology my “loving” god had set up ages before my birth. It seemed like such a silly reason to be tortured forever to me. That’s probably one reason I later came to reject Christianity–that utter lack of proportion in punishment. So I guess it’s true that those little blurbs of astrology in newspapers are dangerous for Christians–just not in the way that Christian leaders imagine them to be.

Much later, years after leaving Christianity, I ran into a young woman in Kansas who had this huge workbook about Capricorns that she’d bought at her local college bookstore. I still don’t know what college class required students to have something like this. I suspect it was something like this book here. Since I happen to be a Capricorn as well, I thought it’d be a hoot to read it. It got extremely detailed, with ways to figure out where all my planets and moons and suns and everything were. My boyfriend at the time bought the book for his star sign and did his as well, leading to the very amusing revelation that I was a Capricorn with a Leo ascendant and he was a Leo with a Capricorn ascendant.

I was just shocked by how accurate it all seemed. Of course, I was the one writing all this stuff down and finding it, so that may contribute a little to why I was seeing stuff that seemed so spot-on. The effect I was experiencing was nothing more than a little cognitive bias humans suffer from called the Forer Effect. That means that people will assign a high accuracy rate to anything they think has been custom-tailored for themselves, when that thing might not have been so at all. And combined with other biases we suffer, we might not even remember the times when that custom-tailoring effect fails, remembering only its successes. Confirmation bias ensures that if someone goes looking for successes, chances are that successes shall indeed be discovered. That’s one reason why the scientific method is as powerful and as respected as it is by right-minded people: it does its best to eliminate that confirmation bias effect.

Horoscopes are the most famous example of the Forer Effect, but there are other things that fit the bill. If you’ve ever seen a televangelist trying to make a television audience send him tons of cash, you might have seen the Forer Effect in motion. Here’s one example courtesy of Ron White, a “Blue Collar” comedian:

I was sitting on a bean bag chair, naked, eating Cheetos the other day when Robert Tilton came on TV. He’s a televangelist out of Dallas.
He looked at me and said, “Are you lonely?”
“Yeah.”
“Have you spent half your life in bars pursuing sins of the flesh?”
“This guy’s good!”
“Are you sitting in a bean bag chair naked eating Cheetos?”
“… Yes, sir…”
“Do you have the urge to get up and send me a thousand dollars?”
Ha ha, close! I thought he was talking about me there for a second!

This story could have come out of any fundamentalist church I ever attended. To some extent this practice is just cold reading. It is done not to tell fortunes, though, but rather to convince targets that the speaker has some supernatural information about them that couldn’t have been obtained in any other way. It’s a way of establishing credibility and asserting authority. And when it gets trotted out, you can be sure it will be seen as a real live miracle. But the people who get duped by this guessing-game never understand what happened.

English: Horoscope for the Supernova of 1572 (...

English: Horoscope for the Supernova of 1572 (labeled: “Nova stella”) by Tycho Brahe “It was when deciding on the date of its first appearance that he had recourse to a horoscope: he simply adapted a method advocated for comets by ‘Alī ibn Ridwan, and decided that its first appearance was during the conjunction of Sun and Moon on 5 November 1572…” North, John David (1986). Horoscopes and history, 175-176, The Warburg Institute, University of London. ISBN:978-0854810680. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) I just thought this was neat.

I can remember people telling me all breathlessly about how some preacher or proselytizing Christian had told them about themselves things that they’d never told anybody–and years later, I’d hear the same wonderment in the voices of those who had gotten very detailed horoscopes drawn up by “experts.” But it’s not hard at all to learn how to do this type of cold reading. Here’s a funny blog post doing just that. When I was on a MUD once right after my deconversion was finished, I remember arguing with a guy about this exact situation. He didn’t believe people would fall for it that easily. So I picked a random player and within a few minutes had him convinced that I’d psychically seen into his soul by using the common “You’re like this… but sometimes you’re like that” formula. It was painfully easy, and not at all different from the evangelists I’d seen–and sometimes emulated, to my shame. You see, for a brief time I was one of those Christians who thoroughly believed that my god had given me some special supernatural powers of divination and prophecy. I didn’t even know what I was doing was cold reading. I thought it was supernatural in nature–divine, godly, sublime–but not my own doing. But it was me who realized I was doing nothing at all supernatural–not the people around me. I had them convinced. Then again, they wanted to be convinced.

People aren’t the unique special snowflakes they usually imagine they are, and this principle is as true in astrology as it is in religious evangelism. Flattering them is painfully easy. And it’s very flattering for us to see something as applying specially to us when we really want to see it that way. If something is presented as halfway authoritative and it’s even a little flattering, chances are we’ll fall for it.

Now it all seems so narcissistic, this idea that gods or stars have some cosmic concern in the affairs of regular people. It doesn’t matter how many studies debunk astrology or expose predatory preachers who are getting their information from purely earthly sources rather than a divine one. People still want it to be true. And life is still mysterious enough that we’ll probably always feel we need a little extra help controlling its ups and downs. I don’t read my horoscope anymore, largely because I don’t get the newspaper in printed form anymore, but I don’t have it in me to condemn people who still need that help. It may be the first-worldiest of all first-world problems that this famous astrologer is sick and can’t get horoscopes out in time, but you know, she is kinda part of the reason why so many people feel so dependent on her services in the first place.

Probably the only honest astrology buff I ever met was a tarot-card reader who told me once that the cards themselves don’t have any power at all, and there was nothing supernatural about anything she did. She saw value in tarot because she thought it was a chance for her to interact very closely with another human being and maybe bring out elements of a situation that her client maybe hadn’t seen yet. It wasn’t magic; it was just moving outside one’s normal frame of reference to perhaps see something in a different way. She felt the same way about horoscopes; she was good at making them, but didn’t think they were magical in any way. She also refused to take money for what she did, so maybe she had less to lose by being straightforward. Most of them would not have been so bold.

Me, I’m glad that humans are on our own. I’m glad that there’s a lot more under my control than I once thought there was, and that the random stuff is truly random so what’s the point of trying to guess at it or control it? I’d way rather it be this way than that there be some vast hidden network of cosmic or divine influences that must be ferreted out and guessed at–especially when there’s no real way to know if you guessed correctly.

But don’t you mess with me. It is apparently a grand tradition in astrology-debunking pieces to end by letting you all know something about my own astrological chart, so I’m required to tell y’all that my moon’s in Scorpio, and apparently that means that a Capricorn would sell her own grandmother to the Turks if it got her ahead.

Oh wait, that wasn’t true at all. Huh, what do we do now?

Posted in Biography, Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Drilling Down.

Today I saw this piece in Religion News Service about how some evangelicals are still fighting tooth and nail against the idea of marriage equality. I was pleased to notice that younger evangelicals are starting to come around to the idea, and that groups are arising that are trying very hard to convince evangelicals to quit worrying about other people’s marriages and mind their own business. There was something in that piece that I wanted to talk about today–namely, why I think that conservative Christian organizations must drill down on bigotry at this point and why they are resisting this call to “lay down their arms,” as the piece put it so well.

Prayer For You

Prayer For You (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before we get started, I do want to mention that we’re talking about that type of Christian that I’ve started calling a “toxic Christian.” I’m not going to call this sort of Christian a fundagelical, because I don’t think that this thinking is exclusive to fundamentalists or evangelicals–one sees it out of extremist Catholics and Mormons and plenty of others too. I know that quite a few Christians denounce this kind of behavior and am happy to see them getting more and more vocal in their opposition to Christianist dominionism and overreach–as that RNS piece outlines. The last thing I want to do is alienate folks who are trying their best to rescue their religion from the sickness we’ll be talking about here.

With that said, I can see threads in modern Christianity that have led us to the situation in which Christians find themselves today. Christian leaders have a lot of responsibility for painting themselves into this corner. They caused this crisis that they now face and they kicked up that dust deliberately because at the time, doing so worked to gain them power and influence. But those tactics are backfiring now that their sheep have fully internalized the lessons their leaders so earnestly taught them.

And these are the lessons they’ve taught so successfully:

First, toxic Christians in general have embraced the idea that their religious ideas deserve to be enshrined into law and given government support in the public sphere. So when such a Christian opposes civil rights for some group based on religious ideology and dogma, of course that Christian will want his or her government to deny those rights even if that group’s members aren’t even part of their religion. They can’t separate their opinions about how their own lives should run from how they think society in general should run, and they genuinely think that they have a right to impose their beliefs on others and force others to live the way they think they should live (even though often these Christians cannot live that way either). They’ve been taught for years that they deserve the right to force others to live in certain ways.

Toxic Christians have been billing themselves for decades as the Designated Adults for society as a whole. Over that time, they have been aligning themselves more and more closely with the political world–and the conservative side of that political world, more specifically. They see society as becoming increasingly hedonistic and morally-lax, which they feel justifies their overreach into other people’s private lives.

I don’t see any way for their leaders to now suddenly pull back on the throttle and say they were wrong about that idea–not without seriously threatening the entire superiority complex that these Christians have built up about themselves and their place in society. They have been taught (erroneously) for years that any denial of their overreach is actually a form of persecution. When the now-disgraced EX-governor Bob McDonnell wrote in his 1989 Master’s Thesis for Regent University that he just thought it was awful how modern Americans felt that “each individual should be able to live out his sexual life in any way he chooses without interference from the state,” he clearly felt that government should not only have the right but should shoulder the obligation to referee Americans’ personal decisions regarding their own consensual private relationships–and this certainly wasn’t and isn’t a unique or unusual position for a right-wing Christian to take.

When reminded that America is a secular nation and that we’ve got this whole “Separation Clause” thing that gives Americans freedom of religion, Christians who subscribe to this teaching have dozens of flips and contortions they can perform to make their overreach seem downright patriotic. Because this belief is so incredibly self-serving, it’s hard for them to see how wrong they are and how downright damaging this stance is to their stated goals.

Second, toxic Christians have successfully taught themselves that any change whatsoever to their policies and goals is tantamount to signing up for tango lessons with Lucifer himself. It’s never a good idea to elevate rigidity into an ultimate virtue, but that’s what has happened here. “Compromise” has always been a dirty word in Christianity; one of my preacher ex’s favorite Keith Green albums was No Compromises, and here’s a quick pro-tip for any aspiring fundagelical preachers out there: just shout some variant of “I refuse to compromise!” during a sermon whenever you think things need to get rowdy right then. It’d be rare to find any Christian who thinks religious compromise is acceptable. But some of them have gotten confused about what should be compromised and what shouldn’t.

I’m totally fine with toxic Christians being just as bigoted, evil, rigid, draconian, paternalistic, cruel, and nasty as they want to be in their own private minds, homes, and Ignorant Tightass Club meetings. It’s a free country. However, they’ve got to be able to deal with the rest of us sometimes, and when mature adults with different mindsets and beliefs want to accomplish things together and live together peacefully, sometimes they’re going to have to compromise about what specific things will get done and discussed. And that’s not happening in American society right now because toxic Christians have made such discussions impossible. Any suggestion that they learn to get along with those they’re marginalizing and demonizing gets taken as a suggestion that they learn to eat babies with honey vinaigrette.

I can see why they react so poorly to suggestions of change; toxic Christians think that every single one of their tenets were given to them by no less than a god, and that their tactics were created at the direct instruction of that same god. That makes both their tenets and tactics divine and perfect. That makes any opposition to those tenets and tactics demonic and flawed. And that makes these Christians fundamentally incapable of even considering that they might be wrong about something they’re doing–not something they’re believing, mind you, because sensible people don’t try to patrol beliefs like that, but something they’re doing with regard to others outside their circled-wagons.

I’ve actually seen such Christians react with absolute bafflement about why on earth anybody would ever even oppose their grabby hands because they genuinely think that whatever it is they want is the very best thing that anybody could ever want. They have no desire to share power with anybody else–and why should they, when they think they’re totally right and doing the best possible thing out of all the options and when a god is explicitly blessing whatever they think should be done? They just want what is best for everybody–why can’t we all just see that and let them handle all those tough decisions?

Third, such Christians think that their approval is necessary for other people to function and that their comfort is all that matters in questions of other people’s rights. I’d noticed a certain amount of boundary-blurring way back when I was a Christian, but nowhere do we see that blurring in action more than we do where Christians interact with the world. When bakeries began thinking that baking cakes for wedding couples amounted to giving their stamp of approval to those weddings, that’s when this belief really got attention from outsiders, but really, it’s just a logical extension of a belief that got rolling long before equal marriage became their big fear.

Anything that makes these Christians feel awkward, uncomfortable, nervous, or icked out is obviously not okay and needs to be illegal or at least demonized. If their personal comfort is in any way threatened, then they feel perfectly free to try to stop whatever is making them feel funny. (Of course, this idea doesn’t go both ways; they recognize that outsiders aren’t at all comfortable with what they’re doing, but in that case then obviously the problem is our own and we need to convert or start using the same redefinitions they use or get exorcised or whatever so we can become more comfortable with their overreach and judgmentalism.) I really think what upsets such folks the most is that nobody really cares what they think about another person’s private decisions.

Fourth, they’ve successfully taught themselves that opposition means they’re doing something right. Any sort of pushback means that demons are upset with them and therefore they should keep doing whatever they were doing. As ways to maintain willful ignorance go, this one’s pretty effective; there’s literally no way at all for a toxic Christian to tell when he or she is being totally right, being truly hateful or nasty, or battling demons who are fighting them for someone’s soul. Christian folktales abound with urban legends of people who almost–almost!–gave up on some daunting task only to succeed at the last second and then get rewarded lavishly by their god for persevering despite the odds.

When I was Christian myself, if something went totally smoothly, then obviously that was my god’s hand on the situation directly. But if it went totally horribly, then obviously that was a test from my god. Or it was opposition from demons. Usually, something I was doing didn’t turn out super-smoothly, so usually it was the opposition thing that I saw. I believed very wholeheartedly in miracles, even if I never actually saw any definitive ones in my entire time in the religion, so usually I was right up against failure by the time I even saw it coming. I’m embarrassed now to think about just how often that happened.

Christians can’t let up just because it looks like something they’re doing is turning out absolutely disastrously. I’ve seen plenty of websites from them that insist that at the 11th hour, the whole nation will, for example, just decide that equal marriage is dumb and quit supporting it and everybody will go back to totally demonizing and oppressing LGBTQ people–and this miracle is not only requested but fully expected by those Christians. But what they can’t do is use opposition to examine the rightness of any course of action. They’ve taken self-correction clean out of the picture.

Last and most detrimentally, these Christians have been taught that the culture wars their leaders started are the most important facets to Christianity right now. Their positions on various political and legal questions–that LGBTQ people are ickie, that equal marriage is somehow magically a threat to their own marriage customs, that women shouldn’t own their bodies or have any direct control over anything that happens to those bodies, that science is demonic and education is evil, and a host of others–are, in themselves, the fight. Changing their position on one of these issues in any way means that they lose that fight.

Do you see what I mean? The position is the fight in and of itself.

In the thick of the street festival, some demo...

In the thick of the street festival, some demonstrators used the occasion to get their message out. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Not shown: Love, compassion, success.

That means they’d rather ride the fail train all the way to the bottom than concede that not only is public opinion moving way against them on every single one of those positions they’ve taken, but that those positions are actually costing them the power and influence these cultural battles were supposed to win for their religion. Any kind of meaningful change at this point means, in their little world at least, that their entire religion is going to be irrevocably marked and changed for the worse. Their god is so puny and their religion is so weak that neither can withstand any sort of change or course correction, even when a proposed course correction brings the religion more into line with its source materials’ stated commandments (conversion of the “lost;” loving one’s neighbor; feeding the hungry and comforting the grieving; etc.).

The important takeaway here is that Christian leaders have more or less painted themselves into a corner and left nothing whatsoever to chance. They’ve created a culture full of people who think that they should own the political process, who are convinced that the world requires their comfort and approval to carry on with anything, that they have a right to impose their beliefs on others, and that they cannot cooperate with others or change course for any reason. They’ve created this utterly rigid-thinking group of people who are categorically incapable of recognizing any difference between their religious dogma and others’ rights to believe and act as they see fit.

And now they are reaping the rewards of those earnestly-taught lessons.

So I really don’t see how evangelical Christianity is going to fix this problem very easily. Any change they make is going to involve rewrites to the lessons they’ve laboriously taught their flocks over the last few decades. Their believers have gotten really used to the privilege they learned they should have and the power they were taught was their right to wield over others. Any turnaround from that message is very likely going to totally piss off their existing pool of rigid, hateful, compromise-averse, overreach-loving, dominance-minded Christians–a pool that’s dwindling year by year, but which they simply can’t afford to lose.

But such changes aren’t guaranteed to draw them enough young evangelicals to make up for the numbers of people they will undoubtedly lose by changing. Christian leaders are neither guaranteed to keep their existing fanbase nor guaranteed to gain back the young people who have been alienated by their hateful, divisive message. If they keep to the current course, they will eventually lose most of their people though simple attrition, but if they change, they risk seeing a hemorrhage without certainty of replenishment.

I hope they manage the change anyway. I hope that they decide those nasty Christians aren’t worth keeping and I hope they do the right thing as touching the cultural wars they started. But I certainly don’t count on it happening. Christian churches are businesses just like any other, and I doubt very many of them will put themselves out of business. They’re playing a big game of “chicken” right now, hoping for some last-second miracle, but when push comes to shove, they’ll do what they must to survive–we can count on that.

It just seems so ironic to me to see them struggling with the ossification they themselves put into place when I know that Christianity’s main strength through the ages has been its chameleon-like versatility. By cutting themselves off from that strength, by refusing to even consider any change in their attitudes and tactics, toxic Christians have all but ensured their own slide into total irrelevance. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton; let’s see it pays off for them!

Posted in Feminism, Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Left Behind: The Pandering.

Sometimes I hear about a movie sequel that just didn’t ever have to happen. I’m not even sure why someone felt the need to make some of these. The world didn’t need a Conan the Barbarian sequel, for example. The world had a perfectly adequate Conan already which had said everything we needed said on the topic of that eponymous barbarian. Not only did we get a perfectly awful sequel to it and a spinoff featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger in a not-quite-Conan-but-aw-cmon-it’s-totally-Conan role up against a be-mulleted Brigitte Nielsen, but we got a gritty reboot of it some years later. None of these movies did anywhere near as well as the original had, and all sank into obscurity. Meanwhile, all we need to hear is Mako’s voice to get transported back to “the days of high adventure.”

Medvedev and Arnold Schwarzenegger

Medvedev and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Photo credit: Wikipedia) And then he became governor by his own hand…

When a horrible remake gets made of a movie that was already horrible to begin with, though, that’s when things have potential to get really bad. Left Behind is one such movie franchise. It’s based on a long-running book series about the end of the world. It begins with the Rapture. Many fundagelicals think that the event that will kick off the Endtimes will be their god plucking all the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ in the world to be with him in Heaven to avoid all the terrible things that will come to pass on Earth as it lurches toward Armageddon. The series tracks some people who convert to Christianity post-Rapture and then fight the horrible, evil, nasty, villainous Antichrist (who really kinda seems like a decent fellow to anybody who is not intent on seeing him as a puppy-kicking Big Bad). The first book is about how one of those future converts, an airplane pilot, has to land his plane in the sudden absence of its Raptured crew while his daughter has to fight her way home through mobs of rioting Americans.

And it’s not like the original was some sort of one-off. Left Behind starred Kirk Cameron in not one, not two, but three shitty movies, the last of which got made in 2005. That wasn’t even ten years ago, but apparently we needed to re-examine the whole topic in 2014. A short time of separation between remakes isn’t always bad–in my opinion, Death at a Funeral was awesome in the original and just as interesting and funny in the remake of it that followed only three years later (and Peter Dinklage is in both of them, so there’s that). I just don’t think the world needed another remake of Fox-News-inspired Christian apocalyptic masturbation fantasies.

Combine the notoriously-awful nature of modern Christian movies with the beyond-ludicrous material itself, add one Nicolas Cage, and muddle; drain into a greasy shotglass, squeeze a wedge of emotional manipulation over it, and serve to people who are already so drunk with false-persecution delusions that they won’t notice how foul it tastes. I found myself asking why this particular franchise needed a reinterpretation–why anybody even needed a few more hundred million dollars poured into a series that any sensible person could see is one of the most divisive, mean-spirited, implausible, and cruel examples of Christian media.

And it didn’t take long for me to figure it out:

If God’s Not Dead shows us the false, hateful ideas toxic Christians have about atheists and college in general, then the Left Behind series shows us the false, hateful ideas toxic Christians have about society itself–and about what they imagine is their place in and value to that society. Just as God’s Not Dead tells fundagelicals that even their youngest members can outwit a mean ole atheist professor and that they are right to reject “evilution,” Left Behind tells them that they are of paramount importance to the proper running of society and hugely necessary for culture to function. Yes, that is the very definition of pandering. But are we really surprised that both movies are popular with fundagelicals considering what it feeds them?

The Rapture itself is one of the most visible symptoms there are of toxic Christianity. Let’s face it: it’s a belief that this god certainly doesn’t want any of his precious little children stuck in a world where terrible things are about to happen and bad people are about to do bad things. If someone is a very very very dedicated and true Christian and does everything just right, then he or she can skip all the unpleasantness to come to enjoy a big party up in Heaven while humanity suffers below on Earth.

Besides the obvious problem of this god letting his children suffer every single day in reality, which makes his solicitude and care in this one situation look more than a little creepy, there is an equally troubling problem of just what kind of immoral assholes would happily party down in Heaven while they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that people are suffering elsewhere. Indeed, one character in the trailer even explicitly states this premise just in case anybody wondered: that this god took all the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (and stealing children from their parents and fetuses right out of their mothers’ bellies–ZING to the forced-birthers, considering that in the Bible their god doesn’t actually care much about babies until they’re a month old) to protect them from “the darkest time in the history of this world.” And the fun doesn’t end with those two disturbing problems.

Exactly what kind of world do its fundagelical authors imagine will exist without Christians and their loving god in it?

Why, a nightmare dystopia, of course. Here is the trailer clip. Can you spot all the fundagelical tropes in it?

Let’s ignore the sexily-dressed stewardess with the (GASP) short hair and (EWWW) excessive makeup and (WTF) neck-ribbon like we thought were soooooo sexeh in the late 80s and also ignore that she is clearly either banging Nic Cage’s character or else planning to do so in the very near future (spoiler: she ends up paired off with the Antichrist, because of course she does) and the pure-and-sweet-but-weirdly-sexualized college-aged daughter. Don’t worry about them. And let’s not worry right now about just why Nic Cage has chosen to play Rayford Steele (no, really, I’m not making this up–that’s his goddamned name; I know, and believe me: it’s a total downer to me as a writer to know that something this bad ever got published) as someone struggling to avoid slipping into a coma at any given moment.

Concentrate on what society looks like in the absence of TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Watch the trailer and see what this movie’s audience clearly expects to see once their god has taken them all off-planet to the party bus. This is the fundagelical equivalent of taking their ball and going home; this is their flounce post on the forum. Look what we made them do! Look what will happen once they’re gone!

Car accidents–because apparently people will forget how to drive.

School buses will just go over embankments–because school bus drivers are such wonderful Christians that of course they’ll get Raptured.

Fires and riots, with cities in flames and people attacking each other–because only non-Christians would ever do that.

There’s an ambulance, so obviously hospitals are still operating, but one has to wonder how well the police are doing in this universe. Obviously the firefighters aren’t up to the tasks presented in this trailer alone. Does this movie know that quite a few doctors are non-Christian? So why can’t the police and military and firefighters also be okay? There’s lots of non-Christians around in all of those.

Gun crimes–because Christians never commit gun crimes and non-Christians would run amok with their guns if it weren’t for those good clean Christians.

Why are the roads so curiously empty in this trailer? Does this trailer think that there are more TRUE CHRISTIANS™ than most Christians think there are?

Apparently the only people left will be nitwits or people who don’t remember things too well. Ray even asks, “How could she know that?” about his wife’s prescience about the Rapture–because apparently he married the only fundagelical in the whole world who never once told him about it.

If I knew nothing at all about fundagelical Christianity and saw this trailer, I’d come out of it thinking that fundagelicals have a very low opinion of society and a very high opinion of themselves. I’d think they are convinced that they are the only things holding back a tidal wave of violence and dysfunction. I’d think they are totally convinced that without their god forcing everybody to behave, that people won’t behave at all. I’d think they think that non-Christians are fucking idiots. I’d think their callous, inhuman treatment of both women and children is so far past evil that just that aspect of the trailer itself would get its own post if I weren’t so fucking sick of dealing with Christian callousness, misogyny, and inhumanity toward both groups; yes, we get it, you think women are just mobile incubators for almighty fetuses and that children won’t mind not being with their parents for the rest of all time or knowing their parents are suffering in the Tribulation and then going to Hell while they ride sparkleponies with Jesus.

You can learn a lot from one short trailer and not a single thing someone could learn about Christianity is positive in this one. It’s a two-and-a-half-minute-long shriek of Dominionist chest-thumping, shameless fearmongering, and blatant pandering interspersed with passive-aggressive slaps to all those who do not belong to the Cool Kids’ Club.

The people responsible for this movie–both the making of it and the popularizing of it–genuinely think that they are the civilizing influence on the whole world. They think that without their moralizing and attempts to control others, that we’d all just go nuts having sex in the streets and getting cherry-flavored abortion pills delivered with the pizza every Friday.

The mind-blowing part? As puerile and misogynistic and insulting and delusional as this movie is, it is what passes for proselytization fodder for fundagelicals nowadays. Oh yes. They really think this movie is a witnessing tool that will persuade non-believers to join a church (it doesn’t say which, but I’m assuming it means one with TRUE CHRISTIANS™ in it). Indeed, one of those fake reality-TV fauxbillies from “Duck Dynasty” has done a video saying exactly this:

“Like most Christians, my family and I can truly say that we’re excited about the soon return of Jesus,” Robertson says in the video. “And I’m sure, if you’ve been watching the news lately, you know that that return could be any day from now. But what about those who may not even know about it?” Robertson worries. “People who don’t even know what’s at stake?” Take then [sic] to see this film, and naturally they’ll convert and be a-OK. “It’s a warning to those, if it happened today, they’d be left behind,” Robertson explains of the action-packed film. “And I believe people are going to make that life-changing decision to follow Christ on the way home from the theater on Oct. 3. Let’s all make sure we bring some friends and family to see this movie – people who need to see to believe. Opening the door to unbelievers has never been this fun!”

How very odd and strange that he doesn’t mention anywhere in there that he’s one of the producers of this honker and so has a direct financial stake in whether or not Christians flock to his movie and bring tons of friends–which will entail buying tons of movie tickets. How strange that he presents his admonition without mentioning his financial connection to the movie.

But leaving aside the matter of his own dishonesty, Mr. Robertson actually says that he believes that this schlock–this utterly fictional schlock–will make people convert in droves. He thinks that a bunch of green-screened special effects and a beyond-lame storyline constitute “seeing to believe.” My mind just boggles at how little he understands of what evidence actually looks like; I’ve got to wonder if he saw Harry Potter and thought that must mean that magic and Hogwarts is real because it was after all in a big-budget movie so obviously that’s all anybody needs to see to believe!

And even by that standard, his idea is ridiculous. The problem with movies and worldviews like the one presented in Left Behind is that we can already see what happens when societies move away from Christianity. We’ve been doing it for years and to be honest every single factor of dysfunction improves with decreasing religiosity in a society. We can already see what happens when Christians stop being treated as little godlings in society because very slowly we’ve been peeling away their unwarranted privilege for years now. We can already see how well the Christian god protects his children and how much he cares about their well-being because we’ve been watching for years now as Christians suffer from every single disease and disaster that non-Christians face.

The truth of the matter is that if every single right-wing fundagelical TRUE CHRISTIAN™ did actually vanish off the face of the planet, there’d be some kerfluffle, I’ve no doubt, but society wouldn’t simply break down. To the contrary, I rather suspect society would make some major leaps forward without them dragging us down. There are lots and lots of ethical, moral people who aren’t Christian who’d be capable of keeping the trains running and the libraries open. But I suspect that those Christians don’t like thinking that their impact on society is actually not only negligible in most ways but negative in others–which is why this shitty franchise got a remake now. Christians need an injection of courage, and they ain’t getting it from reality.

As time marches on, the hysterics presented in the Left Behind franchise will become (and have become) less and less believable–and that’s ignoring the authors’ typically fundagelical factual mistakes, such as a plot-destroying one about just how powerful the United Nations actually is and what its responsibilities actually are. I get that it’s a movie so of course it’s going to present a slightly off-kilter view of reality, but this isn’t just a plot-justifying slight warping of reality; it’s a complete rewrite done so Christians can feel smug and satisfied with their religious faith. It’s hard to escape the feeling that toxic Christians don’t have a lot of victories in real life so they have to rely on movies like this one to get their jollies. They seem so very unaware of just how bad they come off looking to people who aren’t in the choirloft with them.

This entire series reminds me of this lady I ran into while doing tech support who insisted that the microphone hole in her computer’s monitor was actually a raybeam projector that kept forcing thoughts into her head; nothing could convince her, not even dismantling the monitor and showing her what was inside it, that there wasn’t a little camera and projection unit in there. Left Behind is not even wrong, because that’d entail it asking a coherent question that can be answered, which it totally doesn’t. It takes a storyline that has no evidence whatsoever to support itself and runs with the assumption that it simply must be true. And its audience takes for granted that this is true as well. But outsiders have no reason to accept this flawed reasoning.

If Christians don’t have some very good compelling reason to convert to their religion, then we will not convert–and those people who are already Christians may well wonder why all they seem to have in their toolbox is emotionally-manipulative bits of pandering like this movie and may well leave once they start investigating doctrines like the Rapture and discover that not only is there no reason to think it’ll happen but that even in Christianity it’s a fairly new doctrine. Movies like this may well snag a few people who lack critical thinking skills, but if Christians are banking on scaremongering movies like this to produce hordes of new converts, they may be waiting a long time to see their churches fill back up again.

I certainly won’t be one of those converts.

Sorry, but I don’t make my personal decisions from a place of fear.

I don’t negotiate with terrorists.

I refuse to respond to threats with no credible backing.

And the very idea that some Christians genuinely think that a movie that is nothing more than an unsubstantiated (and largely non-credible) threat is actually a proselytization tool is so far past offensive that it veers into tone-deaf territory. They must really think non-Christians are idiots to fall for something so childishly obvious and blatantly fictional. But I’d prefer that idea to one alternative, which is that a threat this childishly obvious, self-serving, and blatantly untrue would work on them, so they think that it should work on everybody else too.

I think Nicolas Cage is a total hoot so I may watch the movie with the assistance of a bottle of Watermelon Pucker, but I’d like to say this:

No, “Duck Dynasty” dude who likes to pretend he’s a hyuck-hyuck backwoods hillbilly while trying to convince waterfowl to have sex with him. This shitty movie will actually only distance non-Christians from your religion even further than they already were. It will only open your religious ideas up to further scrutiny and mocking. And it will only hasten the demise of fundagelical dominance. So bring it. Knock yerself out. When I’m done drunkenly laughing my ass off at the lameness of this movie, I’ll pop Conan the Barbarian into the ole DVD player to remind myself of what a truly great movie looks like.

(H/t: Why Evolution is True)

Posted in Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Operation Pitchfork and A Moment of Crisis.

As I write this letter I look at you in your crib, and know that in all likelihood it will be the last time that I see you. In a few hours I will join the largest gathering of parents, brothers, sisters and other civilians in UEE history. We have been mobilised by a common danger, one that threatens your future, and one that our government and military have repeatedly failed to address.

(Letter To My Daughter”)

Long, long ago I realized late one night that what I believed could not possibly be factually true. Worse than simply lacking objective truthfulness when stacked up against the observations about reality and morality that I had been willfully ignoring and studiously trying to explain away with apologetics, the source document for my belief wasn’t even internally consistent with itself. Like so many ex-Christians before me, for just a brief time I dangled on a tightrope between belief and disbelief as I moved from one world to another, from one worldview to another, from one entire working paradigm to another. For some of us that time lasts a good long while, maybe even years. For others of us, that abrupt flash of sudden comprehension, that crystallizing gasp of awareness, that feeling of all the puzzle pieces falling right into place, it happens in a heartbeat.

I came to awareness about some of the more downright evil aspects of Christianity before I realized that the religion’s claims couldn’t possibly be true even by its own standards. For one evening, I wrestled with the suspicion that my god might still exist, but that if he did he must be the most evil being in the entire universe–and certainly was no friend to humankind. That moment of yawning realization felt like being slowly poured out of a cup onto a red-hot frying pan.

Today I want to talk about a brief moment of crisis I experienced during that evening when I realized with a shuddering jolt what it would mean if the Bible’s god really, truly existed in the form that I’d been taught was true my entire life–when I allowed myself to really consider what things like “free will” and “eternal Hell” really meant. The reason I’m talking about it today was that I was reading about something on a gaming site that got my attention and reminded me of that night.

I am not a soldier. I own and run a small business. I served my time in Squadron 42, but that was a long time ago. Since then I have grown older and my reflexes have dulled. My main responsibilities now are as a parent and a husband. It is those responsibilities that are now compelling me to do my utmost to protect you. That is why I have joined Operation Pitchfork.

(Letter To My Daughter”)

We talked not long ago about Star Citizen, that new indie game put out by Chris Roberts, the new Messiah of gaming. SC is going to be the all-singing, all-dancing space game for Serenity fiends, Star Wars fanatics, lonely Trekkies, and babbling Babylon 5 and Farscape vagabonds alike. A big part of its appeal is how truly open-ended and “sandbox” the environment is planned to be. Have a ship. Have a hundred. Have none at all. Be someone else’s crewhand, or play a character who is happily planet-bound. Become a preacher. Have a nightclub on some seedy cesspool of a planet. Swear by your pretty floral bonnet that you.. will.. end him. Open a space station that may become the hope of the galaxy for peace and understanding. Become a pirate. Become an insurance broker. Become a miner. Become a general. Become an artist. Chances are it will all be there one way or another. Play alone and never see another player. Play on servers with thousands of other players. Thanks to the huge bank that Mr. Roberts is getting from his crowdsourced funding, the goals stopped sounding way-out-there a few dozen USDmillions ago. The community that has sprung up around this game–even two years from anything vaguely resembling release–is huge and passionate.

The game is about outer space. Some of the events in it are military; some aren’t. One of the military events involves space aliens destroying a human colony on another planet. It was supposed to end with Earth more or less ignoring the colonists’ plight. But very early on, a player-run counteroffensive called “Operation Pitchfork” rose up against that attack. Now, keep in mind: this attack is in SC’s background. By the time the game is finally released, this attack will have occurred already. The counteroffensive is slated for the tail end of beta testing.

And it will fail.

It will completely, totally, fail.

It will fail without any question and without any chances of success.

There is no way it can succeed.

And the people involved are gonna do it anyway.

Already the materials pouring out of the playerbase are starting to grab attention–with super-inspiring letters to their equally-fictional children ingame (which I’m taking the liberty of blockquoting in this post because damn) and fan-made videos so stirring that dang, arthritis or not, they make me want to rush out and join the military.

I seriously don’t think Chris Roberts expected any of this excitement over what seemed like a fairly routine ingame background event. It wasn’t even meant to be the most important event that had ever evented in the game. It was almost the level of “fluff”–that sort of routine destruction that gamers always expect in their source materials, just background noise that gets plots moving in the right direction and Just-Sos racial enmities and NPCs’ attitudes. That attack has now taken on mythic proportions, with the game’s developers taking notice and starting to incorporate the players’ participation and ideas into the game’s canonical evolution–and they will be running the actual counteroffensive so that later, surviving characters will have this very rich backstory to remember and discuss and live with ingame. And honestly, I’m not super-surprised by the idea’s popularity. It’s very clear to me that it feeds into that very human love of “The Last Great Act of Defiance,” illustrated here:

last_great_act_of_defianceWhat makes this Operation Pitchfork even more remarkable is just who is involved. The counteroffensive will be made up of non-military personnel–characters who retired from the military like the writer of the “Letter to My Daughter,” certainly, but also farmers and shopkeepers and cigar rollers and housemaids. Earth cannot help at all on any official level. That’s why it’s called “Operation Pitchfork.” It’s a civilian counteroffensive. It will be fought against a monstrous alien force of unguessable and definitely superior numbers and technology.

But what the hell else can someone do after hearing about something like that attack happening?

All the world loves an underdog, and it don’t get a hell of a lot more underdog than Operation Pitchfork. I’m sure Chris Roberts was just flabbergasted to see the response to that alien attack–as more and more and more people signed up for this fictional counteroffensive. And they are signing up for one simple reason:

In this game, people will ask each other a question as old as humanity itself: “What did you do when you heard about this evil thing that happened?”

There is something in the human breast that cannot bear cowardice and taking the easy path. Those who oppress us would love for that to be so: keep your head down. Don’t make waves. Don’t risk it. Don’t resist. Oh, we might even behave the way they want for a long time. But I don’t think most of us can do it forever. Even when the stakes are impossible, we still rise up against oppression. It’s not about the winning necessarily; it’s about the resistance itself. In Good Will Hunting, there’s an intense scene where Will reveals that when his foster father asked him to choose the instrument of his own beatings, he always chose the wrench–“because fuck him, that’s why.” I totally understood–and I bet everybody else watching did too, even those who faced that kind of abuse in their pasts, even if we ourselves lacked the courage to do that at the time. Those sorts of stories nurture us and show us the way and put words to our situations. Utterly futile gestures of defiance are part of the human condition and always have been. That’s one reason why religion seems to try so hard to stamp them out and demonize them if they’re not properly harnessed.

It is possible that when you are old enough to read this, some misguided people will attempt to rewrite history. They will blame your father and others like me for any ongoing Vanduul attacks. We will not be there to defend ourselves, having sacrificed our lives to buy humanity some time. Of them, I suggest you ask one simple question: “Where were you?”

(Letter To My Daughter”)

I’m talking about this stuff now because Operation Pitchfork reminded me very suddenly of that night, long ago, when I dangled suspended between “oh fuck me running: this god is downright evil” and “wait, wait, this whole thing can’t be right at all.” For a very brief moment, you see, as I studied my Bible, I struggled with the realization that the god depicted in the Bible wasn’t actually a good god at all. Might made right, in that worldview, and he happened to be very mighty so whatever he said was right, by definition (this idea is also called divine command theory and it’s one of the more screwed-up ideas to come out of religion). It was a relief to me to realize that the Bible contradicted itself enough that it couldn’t possibly be talking about a real god, but let’s be clear here:

That night I realized that if this god existed, then I would be obligated to spend my life actively resisting him–even if I lost. I certainly would not keep denying that he existed if I thought he did; denying something I thought was reality would be counterproductive. Instead, I’d use my finite lifetime to do whatever I could to resist. Even if I lost everything, I would find a way. Even if I would face the worst consequences possible for denying this omnipotent being, resistance would be a moral imperative at that point. It was a stunning few hours as I worked through the last lingering tail ends of doubts and finally arrived at the realization that none of it was true anyway–which raised some other big problems for me when I realized that people were speaking in this god’s name to trample over others.

All that it takes for evil to win is for good people to do nothing. I’m grateful that we’re not dealing with a real live god, but folks, just because he doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean that horrible things aren’t happening that need us to do whatever we legally, peacefully can to help stop them. I don’t know about y’all, but I can’t relax just because the Bible isn’t true. People are still claiming this nonexistent god’s authority to justify their excesses.

We all have our own risks and abilities. Some of us face huge risks for even minor acts of dissent so have to be careful; some of us are able to speak more freely and do much more. All over the world, as more and more people wake up to the sheer unmitigated evil that religion can wreak on societies, pockets of resistance and defiance are springing up. I see signs of this peaceful resistance on display all over the world as people push back against those who seek to own them.

That’s why I love humanity. We can see impossible odds, absolutely ludicrous chances, even certain failure and death, and still see the struggle as so important that we’ll go charging into it anyway. Our own pride will not tolerate the idea of us standing by and letting evil happen without saying and doing something. So here’s to us: here’s to humanity. And to every person who right now struggles against injustice, may you never lose your courage.

OPF_Because

 

Posted in Gaming, Religion, The Games We Play, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments