Scott Lively and the Bonus Plan.

Sounds like a children’s serial novel, doesn’t it? Scott Lively and the Bonus Plan. Scott Lively and the Search for Relevance. Scott Lively and the Hunt for Gullible Rubes. Scott Lively and His Sudden Boost in Status. Scott Lively and the Unexpected Endgame.

English: Rainbow flag flapping in the wind wit...

English: Rainbow flag flapping in the wind with blue skies and the sun. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Shown: Scott Lively’s biggest fear.

Ever since I first heard of this guy, he sounded distinctly like that sort of Christian who will say or do absolutely anything to get attention and status. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s a fundagelical pastor from, most recently, Massachusetts who really, really, really despises and fears gay men. He showed up out of nowhere in the early 1990s with a book about how Nazis were actually totally gay (except NO THEY WERE NOT–except in his weirdest sexual fantasies, as if anybody needed to say so) and that’s how they could be such bastards to everybody–because apparently being gay made someone more prone to Nazi-like behavior, rather than being a right-wing super-fundie toxic Christian. As you might guess, even in the 90s he had a tough time selling this sort of bizarre hatemongering, especially in Oregon where he was located at the time, so he went off in search of an audience that’d give him what he sought. He ended up in Uganda, a country with a very complex relationship with the United States culturally-speaking, and found an eager audience there for his swill. If you heard about that whole “Kill the Gays” bill, that’s more or less Scott Lively’s foul handiwork, though he distanced himself from it almost immediately once worldwide outcry–even from Christians–erupted from pretty much everywhere all at once.

Uganda wasn’t the only country fooled by his rhetoric, though; some hate-filled, frothing-mad Christians in the United States and some Eastern European zealots in places like Latvia really like him as well. And even though the adoration was coming from some of the most awful people imaginable, it was still adoration and he took it. I’m guessing he wasn’t finding it in many places.

He’s now apparently very sad and miffed that people characterize him as “gay-hating” and “anti-gay” when he doesn’t think he is at all–he just wants everyone to know that the Nazis were actually gay and that’s purely why they did what they did and that gay people–which means men, as far as he’s concerned–are terrible, horrible people who probably commit pedophilia and who even knows what else, and he thinks that being gay is worse than mass murder. He also very recently came out with some bit of blithering dumbfuckery about how allowing LGBTQ people to access marriage rights would cause the end of the world. No, really. It’d be downright embarrassing to see him crash and burn if it weren’t, well, him doing the crashing and burning. He is why the word schadenfreude got invented; the only real pity here is that Ugandans didn’t see him coming a country-mile away like Americans did, but as Christians like to say (and like he himself says, I can assert without any doubts whatsoever), a prophet never gets any respect in his home country.

On that note: I don’t know about you, but if someone didn’t hate a person who was a Nazi pedophile mass murderer and was going to without question cause the end of the world, then I’d wonder what was wrong with that person. The amount of mincing doublespeak required to hold the “love the sinner but hate the sin” position and talk out of both sides of one’s mouth like he does reaches its apotheosis in this pandering, preening hypocrisy. Thankfully, we need not wonder how Mr. Lively manages to “love” people who are Nazi pedophile mass murderers hellbent on ending the world; we know he most certainly does not have the faintest idea what love even is, much less is showing it toward anybody.

Tweety-beats-SylvesterRight-wing toxic Christians themselves are all but giddily celebrating the pushback against Scott Lively; to them, it’s all part and parcel of the end of the world, all part of that weird Left Behind vision of Armageddon dancing in their heads like the sugarplums in children’s dreams on Christmas Eve in that old poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. Or like the stars flying around Sylvester’s head after he gets knocked out. Take your pick.

Now we can add to his list of pseudo-titles this one: Scott Lively and His Amazing Trial for Crimes Against Humanity.

A couple of years ago, a group in the United States brought a lawsuit against him for, well, inciting genocide. From the SPLC’s writeup of him:

Lively’s work in Uganda led to a lawsuit against him under the Alien Tort Claims Act, filed March 14, 2012, by Sexual Minorities Uganda, an LGBT rights group in that country, and the Center for Constitutional Rights in the U.S. The lawsuit claims that Lively conspired with political and religious leaders in Uganda beginning in 2002 to incite anti-LGBT hysteria with warnings about the dangers of LGBT people to children and homosexuality to Ugandan culture. The Liberty Counsel, based in Virginia, announced that it would defend Lively in the case, and moved to have it dismissed. However, U.S. District Judge Michael Ponser rejected the Liberty Counsel’s motion on August 15, 2013, allowing the case to proceed.

He of course appealed again, and a few months ago, a federal court denied his appeal, which means the lawsuit is totally happening. Incidentally, just before that lawsuit got filed, some of his fellow hatemongers apparently demonstrated outside the Southern Poverty Law Center’s offices where Peter “Porno Pete” LaBarbera, one of the biggest names in Christian bigotry, asked “God” to “destroy” the SPLC. I reckon that request is yet another prayer they’ll need to use the “yes/no/maybe/wait” rationalization on.

And meanwhile, decent Christians watch this circus unfold. They see their Christian friends, the people who “hug their necks” and sing alongside them in church, people they grew up with and thought were loving and decent people like themselves, they see these “loving” peers wail and moan and shriek and whine and scream about LGBTQ people. They see what the effects of all that “love” are on their LGBTQ friends and family members. Maybe they themselves are LGBTQ and suddenly realize one day just what their “loving” peers would do to them if they found out. Either way, they see the forwards supporting these bigots. They hear how their leaders describe people they know are decent and loving and kind people. They reel under the constant onslaught of hatred and discrimination.

What can they do, though? They pray and they ask their god how he can possibly allow this determined, systemic attempt to disenfranchise and ostracize, punish and penalize people for not loving the right people in the right way. Maybe they speak up in defense of their brothers and sisters in Christ–and get fruit hurled at them by violent, bigoted Christian peers for not being hateful and bigoted enough. It has got to be simply sickening to see just how much their peers simply hate a whole group of people who never did any harm to them. The relabeling act of calling that hatred “love” stops fooling them, if it ever did, and they have to make some decisions about just where they’re going to spend their time.

Folks, it’s not just non-believers like you and me who see this shit happening and decide that it doesn’t even matter if Christianity’s truth claims are factual or not–this is nothing anybody truly decent would ever, ever, ever want to ally with. No, it’s not just non-believers. It’s believers, too–people who are actually deeply and unreservedly Christian who are seeing this stuff and deciding the same thing we are.

And I can’t blame them. This hatred is the oozing pus seeping from the festering wound that lies at the broken, twisted, blackened heart of Christianity.

That people like Scott Lively can run all over the world and find such a huge audience for what amounts to hate and terror tactics is a sign of the end all right, but not the end bigots imagine and use for masturbation fodder.

It is a sign of the end of Christianity. The body is flopping on the ground grabbing frantically at anything that might give it another few precious breaths of air, but that body is dying.

It astonishes me routinely that so many Christian leaders are wringing their hands over why their young people are fleeing the church in droves. It’s not like those selfsame young people aren’t flat-out telling them exactly why they’re leaving; it’s that those reasons don’t mesh up well against the common wisdom about “apostates.” Pastors have to figure out why those leaving went wrong and what sins they committed that made them rebel against what these Christians are very certain is “God.” When their young people tell them that they find Christian bigotry to be repulsive and hateful, these Christian leaders have to find some other reason why it’s happening. And they have to find, as well, a way to package their bigotry and position it in a way that doesn’t sound quite so repulsive and hateful–and don’t realize that there isn’t some magical way to position and package bigotry to make it sound like THE BONUS PLAN™.

You’ve probably heard me use that term before. Now I want to share why I use it. When I talk about THE BONUS PLAN™, I’m borrowing the phrase from an awful Andrew Dice Clay routine in which he describes a conversation he claims to have had with a sexual partner. He informs this mythical woman, who’s come over to his place for what she thought was going to be a sweet evening of cuddling, that he wants to have sex. When she objects, saying she just wanted to be held, he informs her that sex is actually “THE BONUS PLAN, BABY!” It’s not a flaw in the plan. She’s going to get the cuddling and the sex. Everybody wins! Sex is a wonderful and unique addition to the plan that he asserts is a distinct and marvelous benefit to her, and she ought to be thrilled that it was added to the normal festivities. When I heard this joke, I immediately thought about how Christianity does the same thing.

Scott Lively is one of those Christians who thinks that bigotry is THE BONUS PLAN™. It’s not the entire reason he’s into Christianity, but it’s certainly the icing on the hate-cake. The cake itself is attention and grandeur, adoration and people who dote on his every word. That’s why, with a lawsuit pending about how he helped bring about genocide and hatred across half the world, Scott Lively can spew many words about how gay people are going to bring about the end of the world and cause Armageddon and the rise of the Antichrist. You’d think he’d be quietly laying low and trying to be as (falsely) nice as he possibly could so nobody could ever make the mistake of thinking he would ever wish harm upon anybody. But you’d be wrong.

Hate sells in Christianity, especially hate of marginalized LGBTQ people. If Scott Lively could get the power and adoration he clearly needs by preaching love, forgiveness, acceptance, and grace–you know, like Jesus mostly is supposed to have done–then he’d do that. But he probably sees what happens when his peers try that route. Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans, John Shore and the rest of the emergent/progressive crowd routinely get called the worst names ever–by the sort of Christians who have pinned their entire religious identity to the destruction of other people’s human rights and the denigration and subjugation of entire groups. By the sort of Christians who are in the religion to hate and destroy and hate and control and hate, rather than to do a single thing Jesus is supposed to have told them to do (you know, that boring-ass shit like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and comforting the orphaned and widowed, and that really inconvenient shit like turning the other cheek, forgiving without ceasing, loving someone who wishes you harm, doing way more than is ever asked of you, and always wanting the best for everybody no matter how mean they are to you). By people who subsidize hatemongers like Scott Lively. By Scott Lively himself.

Hate sells.

Savage hatred sells even better.

Savage hatred dressed up in pretty words like “love” sell the best of all, especially to Christians who have already successfully redefined “Christianist persecution” as “religious liberty” and who already see all pushback as an indication that “Jesus” totally approves of everything they’re doing.

He can’t even soften the stance or walk it back at this point. If he does, then by his own definitions he is a weak-willed, lukewarm compromiser. The wolves who draw encouragement from him, howling at his every word, will leap upon him the moment he weakens in his delivery of hatred and they will rip him apart the same way he wants them to rip apart LGBTQ people. He’s hoist by his own petard; he’s hung by his own hand; he’s painted himself into a corner. And there’s no god to rescue him from his own grievous misdeeds.

So no, friends. Don’t be shocked that even as his lawsuit progresses, he still comes out in full force against those he hates so much. He must. Lawyers cost money and so do plane tickets to Russia to spread more hatred. This is a machine he started but cannot stop.

And that his shameless hatred will cost Christians, as a whole, as a body, so many adherents doesn’t even matter. Nor does it matter how much damage people like him ultimately do to their religion’s credibility. The few who remain will be even more polarized, even more hateful. So Scott Lively will always draw a paycheck, as long as these hatemongers think he’s One of Them. Even if when he goes to prison, they’ll just think he is being martyred and double down on the great cause of “loving” LGBTQ people to death.

Now we must ask why so few Christian leaders and Christians themselves are speaking out against Scott Lively and his brand of hatemongering–what about their culture makes even the more benign among them so unwilling to strongly condemn someone who is doing this kind of damage to the “brand.” That unwillingness is, itself, another symptom of the sickness: without objective foundation for one’s beliefs, it gets a lot harder to call out total whackadoodles for believing nonsense like Scott Lively does. Worse, the entire culture is now built around an artificial conceptualization of “niceness” that makes it difficult to condemn hypocrites like him until things get totally out of hand.

The overwhelming tenor of Mr. Lively’s response to this lawsuit seems–to me at least–to be total, complete astonishment that his activities worldwide have subjected him to some kind of comeuppance. He thought he could go anywhere in the world and basically bring entire countries to genocide and persecution of Others and then come traipsing back to the United States and wallow in adoration and money, and nobody could touch him because hey, it was other countries. (Of course, the only reason these lawsuits aren’t centered around him causing America to abuse and murder LGBTQ people is that most Americans are pretty much over homophobia at this point, and I’m sure he kind of senses that at some level.) I’m glad he is being held accountable for spreading his brand of hatred and ignorance worldwide, and hope that other hatemongers consider very carefully doing similarly before they embark on similar campaigns. I hope this lawsuit helps.

And I yearn and ache for the day when we look back at people like Scott Lively and wonder how the fuck he ever found traction–when it’s simply weird and unthinkable that someone could be so bigoted and so obviously wrong and sad–when nobody sees his story without wondering what is this guy’s damage?

The last few books in his series are still to come, but they’re already on deck and being edited. All bigots like him are doing is fighting against the inevitable end of their control.

Soon, friends.




* CCR Justice, the main website for the group bringing the lawsuit against Scott Lively for inciting Uganda to genocide and violence against LGBTQ persons.

* Slate: What this lawsuit means. An overview of the laws involved here.

* SPLC writeup about the appeal denial.

Posted in Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

My Breath Caught in My Throat.

(Content note: Terrorism, extremism, physical violence.)

Like a lot of folks, I have news alerts on my phone to keep me abreast of what’s going on in the world.

But I wasn’t ready for what flashed on the headlines last night.

“Atheist Blogger Hacked to Death”, it said.

I’m not ashamed to tell you that my breath caught in my throat.

I know a lot of atheist bloggers. Some of them are in areas that aren’t exactly friendly to those who don’t toe the religious line. I couldn’t even breathe as I frantically tapped the headline. Load, load, load, LOAD, damn you.

And slowly–I hit my limit on data about five days into every month–the article loaded.

It was nobody I knew. I felt air flow back into my lungs.

But it was still horrifying.

Avijit Roy and his wife were attacked by Islamic extremists who hacked him to death and savagely injured her. The worst part? Their brutalization isn’t even the first time this has happened in a while.

Roy, who was 42, is the second Bangladeshi blogger to have been murdered in two years and the fourth writer to have been attacked since 2004.

All they did–their big crime–was to challenge religious ideas (CN: post-attack photos) and ask for an end to religious dominance. And that was enough to call for this man’s murder and the physical assault on his beloved wife.

It’s not just an Islamic problem. The Pope himself has come out on the side of condoning religious violence, after all, as the brilliant Rosa Rubicondior has pointed out. Even after Muslims stormed France and murdered people over having their delicate fee-fees bruised over a political cartoon, people worldwide sympathized and used the incident to try to silence religious dissenters, as Dan Fincke has examined so thoroughly. Protestant extremist-zealot pastors regularly advocate for violence and force to achieve their goals, even going so far as to fearmonger and pander to frighten the flocks into docility. And they do it because it works for their followers–at least a little.

No, in my country it’s not Islamist extremist zealots committing the worst deeds; it’s Christians. And thankfully we’re not at the stage where most of us feel physically unsafe or are at risk of harm, though certainly non-believers face all sorts of penalties at the hands of “loving” Christians. One big reason it hasn’t gotten that far is because our country is supposed to be secular, rather than a theocracy; if we’d allowed such a terrible thing to happen to our government, no doubt we’d be seeing similar brutality against non-Christians. The only reason we don’t see this sort of violence is because it’d be a hate crime and a secular society still finds such crimes repulsive.

Indeed, we’ve got enough violence, all from the self-appointed ambassadors of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love. Christians shoot people they think are Jews and Sikhs mistaken for Muslims, gay people, and they even go after fellow Christians who just aren’t as violently bigoted as their bigoted attackers would like.

These violent, rage-filled bigots aren’t using logic or reason to sway those who dissent.

Indeed, they really can’t.

Instead they use violence and terror to get their way.

So when you ask me why I blog like I do, when you ask me why I keep talking about where religion goes wrong and which of its claims has been debunked this time, this is why.

Christianity can be a very peaceful religion, as can Islam. Though people’s perceptions of Islam in my country tend to be very unfriendly, the truth is that Muslims aren’t a big security issue in this country. And considering how many billions of Christians live on Earth and how few become terrorists or would ever condone violence against anybody, I have to conclude that it’s not the religion that is itself the problem.

The problem is that I don’t think religious leaders do enough to create a culture wherein even the suggestion of violence is totally unacceptable. When Pope Francis himself “jokes” openly about feeling free to punch anybody who insults something dear to him, he can’t expect that his millions of followers aren’t listening to him and absorbing his rationalizations of violence, that they aren’t thinking oh, okay, so sometimes it’s totally fine–as long as we’re really mad.

But in the hands of bigots, racists, misogynists, classists, controllers, manipulators, liars, fleecers, scam artists, abusers, and narcissists of all stripes, religion can become a brutal and violent tool used by brutal oppressors to strong-arm dissenters into silence, and yes, an effective method of preserving a status quo that did not ever deserve to come about in the first place. There’s a good reason why the number of Christian hate groups increased dramatically after Barack Obama got elected president; he was a visible sign of the end of Christian dominance, in their eyes. Ironically, he’s Christian, just not a bigoted extremist hate-filled Christian, so therefore he’s just as much The Enemy as any atheist or Muslim might be in the eyes of those sorts of Christians. Their enemy isn’t non-Christians; it’s anybody who doesn’t subscribe to their particular ideology of control and oppression.

When you hear one of these toxic Christians whine or rage about wanting “their country” back, mentally translate that to “their dominance.” That’s what they’re really sad about. America still exists, but it’s not an America that recognizes their dominance anymore and wants everybody to have equal representation and fair treatment. Their version of Christianity depends utterly on inequality and unfairness, all of it using religion to justify their grab for power. They won’t be happy until they are safely ensconced in their privilege again, and I think they realize that the genie isn’t going back in the bottle for anything. That’s the kind of realization that leads to the kind of desperate lashing out we’ve been seeing of late.

It’s no secret that the most dangerous time there is for an abuse victim is when he or she is walking out the door at last; that’s the moment when the abuser will unleash the worst violence and threats to try to reel in the victim again. Nothing else has worked, so all the stops get pulled out. In the same way, Islamist extremists abroad are realizing that women’s rights are a thing that is going to happen and that education is a thing that is proceeding with or without their approval and it’s making them oppress women and suppress education harder and harder to the point where their ignorant, oppressive leaders are starting to look ridiculous even to their own adherents, and with good reason. Notice, however, that these ridiculous examples of overreach are happening in countries where religious privilege is enshrined into law.

Any time one group gets that kind of legal power, you’re going to see this kind of violence when that group’s dominance gets threatened. There’s no real reason why the group should have power, so there’s no real way for them to keep power except through the worst methods. What, did you think it was some wild coincidence that rape is becoming a serious crisis in deeply-sexist India now that women there are kind of getting a little tiny bit more equality? What we’re seeing in countries racked by such directed violence is a very serious and concerted effort on the part of groups that previously enjoyed uncontested power to maintain that power.

Does anybody (except toxic Christians themselves, of course) imagine that America would be any different if it allowed Christian privilege to be enshrined into law? I know–because I’ve actually heard them say this–that Christians think that Jesus would make the difference there and that a Christian theocracy would be totally totally totally different, for sure, man than those evil nasty Muslim theocracies abroad. I’ve heard the same rationalization around slavery from fundagelical Christians–that “Biblical” slavery would be totally different than real slavery as it is really experienced and has always really been experienced, almost with a pining sigh for those “good old days” when everybody knew their place and was happy with their lot and everybody was Christian (days that didn’t ever exist except in Christian imaginations, but hey, whatever). Any atrocity can be rationalized by zealots seeking a reason to control and oppress others.

I seriously don’t think most Christians who blithely endorse movements like Dominionism, Reconstructionism, and neo-Confederalism actually know what a theocracy is like, much less understand that when religion gets power over people’s lives, I mean real power like the ability to silence dissenters with violence, to imprison those who don’t toe the line properly, and to penalize anybody who doesn’t behave quite right, then everybody suffers except the very few fortunate enough to claw political power in that environment. A Christian theocracy would not be any different from a Muslim one. It’d just fly a different flag, is all. That’s why you’ll hear people who talk about a Christian theocracy called the American Taliban. And that’s why we have to keep calling them out for what they really are.


I’m looking forward to a world where headlines like the one that horrified me so much last night simply don’t exist, and where I don’t have to wonder if it’s someone I knew and cared about this time. One of these days, I know that I’m going to know who it was and it’s going to be someone I care about. Or even me.

The violent Muslims in other countries care about as much about peace and love as the violent Christians do in my country. What they all want is power and privilege, and a return to their former dominance. What they all want is control. Really, all that’s different about them is what symbol flies on their flags and what clothes they wear. If they can’t achieve victory over dissent through loving, rational means, then those of either religion will do whatever it takes to get their way. That should really sober Christians who still mistakenly believe their god and religion are always good for society, but the ones who need most to reconsider their chosen path of hypocrisy are the ones who have the least shame about what they’re doing to their religion’s credibility and image.

And they certainly are doing damage to their religion with each act of violence and each attempt at suppression. Only a very small–but vocal, increasingly vocal and active–number of Christians really want to control other people’s lives or do anything unkind to anybody. But every single time it happens, another truly good and decent Christian decides to stop using the label and to stop giving money to groups that advocate and propagate ignorance and violence. You’d be surprised, perhaps, to discover how many Christians refuse to use that label for themselves in public and have started calling themselves simply “followers of Jesus.” They tend to be pretty nice folks, and there are a surprising number of them in America–all alienated and shocked by what their religion’s leaders are saying and advocating, and what their peers are doing to those outside the tribe. And that’s a good sign.

How religious people treat outsiders–who they consider the least of us–speaks volumes about what they’re really like and who their deities really are, and that’s why their religions are fading in power and popularity as fast as they are. It might take a little longer in countries like Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, but the second real control is removed from religion, we’ve seen over and over again, the faster it falls apart. Extreme, violence-condoning, ignorance-celebrating forms of religion need real power over people’s lives to survive. Such religion can’t survive by any other means.

Terrorism only hastens the end of religious dominance–both here and abroad. But oh, at what a dreadful cost.

I’m thankful to live in a country where religious extremists have so much less power over my life than they do in other countries. I’m thankful that I have the right to speak and write what I please and to dissent publicly from religious ideology. But I know that not everybody has that same freedom, even here.

My heart goes out to the bloggers who have lost their lives and been hurt, and who even today live under a threat of death and violence at the hands of those following religions that are supposed to be about peace and love. We cannot allow Avijit Roy’s death to be in vain and we cannot forget him and those like him who suffer and die thanks to religious extremism of any kind. We need to remember that the label worn by the extremists is not the problem; it is the extremism itself, and we need to keep in mind that these zealots’ desire to control everybody and silence dissenters transcends all religious labels.

The Muslims who attacked Avijit Roy and his wife share far more in common with the Tea Party than they do with 99.9999% of their fellow Muslims. And we must oppose all overreach and harm, recognizing this kinship and knowing where religious dominance leads.

Screen shot 2015-02-28 at 5.21.20 PM
Tea Party or the Taliban?

Posted in Feminism, Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Handbook: The Second Big Mistake Apologists Make.

Last time we talked about apologists, we talked about their first big mistake: that they start with a conclusion and find some kind of logic that will get them to that conclusion. That’s called arguing top-down. In bottom-up arguing, one starts with observations and measurements and builds the argument around those. The reason an argument’s basis is really important is that if an argument is built purely around what the arguer wants to be true rather than what actually is true, then the conclusions are less likely to reflect reality. In the same way, if an argument is based around reality and the observations one derives therefrom, the conclusion is far more likely to reflect reality. Since it’s more than possible to construct a logically-airtight argument about something that isn’t true, it’s really important that we touch base with observable reality at all stages of an argument.

The Case for a Creator

The Case for a Creator (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Oh, so he’s a biologist now?

Apologetics starts off not caring about what’s actually observably true–and those who get into apologetics are quite proud of that fact. They reel in the unwary by a variety of methods of demonizing reality and those who do care about what’s observably true. That’s when you’ll see Christians throw around terms like “Darwinist” and “naturalist”–which are not terms used by those who reject apologetics to describe themselves; these are names that are solely found among apologists, and they are solely used as pejoratives to denigrate observable reality and make pseudo-science sound more convincing. Apologists quite literally want to embarrass and shame people who care about observable reality into maybe not caring about it long enough to get their arguments made. The only way their arguments can possibly succeed is if audiences let go of the need for credible verification of a claim; there’s no way these arguments can succeed without that suspension of disbelief.

The problem we encounter, after that initial issue with not wanting to base their arguments on observable reality, is that the arguments apologists are making are–even if we discount that problem–largely unpersuasive even on that level.

The second big mistake apologists make is falsely representing their arguments as persuasive to their audience.

Lee Strobel, one of the big darlings of apologetics, wrote a book I’ve often seen bandied about, The Case for Christ, in which he represents himself as having been a non-believer who was persuaded by what he found to become Christian. He represents his argument as being a winning “case” for Christianity’s truth claims. But I’ve never met a critical thinker who was ever persuaded by his work. More often one sees reactions like this one, wherein his work actually solidified someone’s rejection of Christianity’s claims. And as Hallq points out here (Less Wrong is a great site generally), Mr. Strobel’s representation of himself is less than honest and more than a little self-serving; in reality, he didn’t start creating an apologetics argument for Christianity till becoming “moved” by regular church attendance.

We’ve talked numerous times here about Christians who represent and market themselves as having been “atheists” at one time. And they may well believe that they really were atheists. But when one delves into just what they believed, we quickly discover that almost every one of these claims used a definition of atheism that atheists themselves would largely reject. Our friend Neil may well have nailed down what the problem is when he wrote that the version of atheism that Christians are using doesn’t look a damned thing like actual atheism–but does look an awful lot like what Christian apologetics writers and pastors think atheism looks like. That appears to be exactly the kind of atheism Lee Strobel is claiming for himself. If you don’t mind seeing one of the very worst “Jesus smiles” you’ll ever encounter, you’ll very quickly notice that on his very own “About” page, the very first words on it are “Atheist-turned-Christian.”

Atheism is the trendy background for Christians to claim nowadays, but you know how it is when something trendy gets over-embraced and misapplied by too many people; the whole concept gets spoiled and starts to backfire. At this point, the second some Christian tries to say that he or she was an atheist before conversion, the audience just cringes; we know what’s coming, and we’re not often disappointed. Christians, however, eat this stuff up with a spoon, lick the bowl, and cry for more; these apologists are telling them that their arguments are so persuasive that a science-embracing, critical-thinking-valuing, and edumacated intelleckshul DARWINIST NACHURLIST fell for them.

This falsehood serves two purposes: First, it tells these Christians that the apologist’s argument simply must be true because obviously it worked on someone who didn’t already buy into its premises. Therefore, if one of those gol-danged nachurlists refuses to bow under this argument, it’s not because the argument is shitty but because of some other sinister motive.

Second, these Christians start thinking that these arguments would work on other atheists of the same stripe and rush right out to try them out. I’m sure it’s a huge shock when they don’t get anywhere near the same response that their apologist heroes get!

I’ve seen Christians get downright indignant when their favorite apologetics argument gets shot down in flames; they often take it like a personal affront, and I can certainly see why. When I reject an argument that a Christian found convincing, I am in effect saying to that Christian, you might have fallen for this guff, but I’m too smart for that, duckie. Not only that, but I’m saying that the Christian him- or herself got taken in and is a fool. As the saying goes, there’s not really a polite way of telling someone that he or she has bought into something that isn’t true; no matter how kindly or nicely one phrases a rejection of apologetics bullshit, at some level Christians know that their own abilities to discern the truth have been (rightfully) called into question. Nobody likes to feel like an idiot.

I can see why Christians are more concerned than non-Christians might be, though. If we put our stamp of approval on anything that turns out to be poorly-constructed or untrue, then our credibility is going to take a serious hit. Christians have a particular reason to dread such a denouement, though, since most of ‘em think that a god is inhabiting them and helping them figure out what’s true and what isn’t. I know I certainly did; I thought that that “still, small voice” inside me was a deity who was subtly guiding me and keeping me from buying into something untrue. Entire books and websites exist to help believers develop “the gift of spiritual discernment.” So if a Christian turns out to be majorly wrong about something, then obviously their discernment was off as well–and nothing stops that discernment from being off elsewhere.

Thankfully, at no time in history before now has it been so easy to find resources with which to combat apologetics’ bad arguments. Back in my day I had to figure this stuff out all by myself. But you’d never know that such a wealth of criticisms and debunks exist if you were only going by Christians’ behavior and publishing output.

Here’s an example of what I mean by that statement. One of the best takedowns that I’ve seen of The Case for Christ is a YouTube series by Steve Shives; here’s the introduction to it and it’s probably not a bad idea to clear your schedule to watch the whole thing. Another excellent book about it, if you’re more into written stuff, is The Case Against the Case for Christ, by Robert Price. And here’s an extensive review of Mr. Strobel’s book that outright refers to him as a “skilled propaganda ghost writer” who blatantly misrepresents his biographical testimony to sell books to evangelical Christians who have been pre-primed–by their leaders and by apologetics writers like himself–to denigrate and ignore observable reality so they can build their worldview around stuff that hasn’t been demonstrated to be real.

And chances are that not a single Christian pushing The Case for Christ has ever heard a single idea in any of those works, though they voice generally similar concerns.

Non-believers, however, are not the audience for apologetics books, any more than Christians are the audience for these critical takedowns. Christians for some reason don’t go seeking criticisms of their favorite apologetics works; when presented with a formal critique of something they think is true, they tend to drill down even harder on their mistaken beliefs. From what I’ve seen of actual comment threads, if a Christian shows up in such a discussion, it’s usually to evangelize or make vague threats about Hell.

There’s not much point to even bothering with an honest investigation, however, for a Christian. Even if Christians were to discover that the arguments in apologetics are unpersuasive and possibly even detrimental to Christianity’s goals, many of them would avoid casting aspersions upon them for a variety of reasons. I myself once had to grapple with that exact dilemma–that if I exposed a false claim, I might be stepping in the way of some lost soul’s salvation. When I began to realize that Jack Chick’s anti-Catholic tracts were, um, less than reality-based (to put it as charitably as possible!), I had the same dilemma. As shitty as these apologetics arguments are, Christians are convinced that someone, somewhere won’t be saved without them. And nobody wants to be accused of that worst of Christian sins, “divisiveness.”

Many of us non-Christians have either had these books directly pushed at us or have had these works’ arguments used against us. Because apologists build their arguments from the top-down from conclusions that Christians themselves already believe are true, and because apologists tend to belittle anybody who disagrees with their approach as “naturalists” and the like, Christians are a uniquely fertile field for the seeds thus sown. They read apologists’ books and watch these videos and interviews without any real interest in figuring out if they’re actually based on anything real or not.

Christian culture itself encourages this mindset. One of the biggest names in the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Land, has called apologetics “the evangelistic wave of the future.” Considering that evangelism is the conversion of people to Christianity, one can guess that Mr. Land mistakenly believes that apologetics is a great evangelism tool.

Our budskie Lee Strobel himself not only thinks that apologetics “is not merely an option” but a requirement for Christians, he goes on to assert that Christianity is “on the cusp of a golden era of apologetics.” I’m sure he does believe what he says, considering that apologetics pays his bills. Other big names like Ravi Zacharias, a noted apologetics bullshit artist author, has on his Wikipedia page that he got drawn to the field as a way of converting people to Christianity and “to train Christian leaders”–at least he’s got one for two, huh? One Christian pastor claims that he’s seen apologetics convert tons of people, though in truth it sounds from his own writing like even he doesn’t even realize that he knows perfectly well that the real use of these arguments is to prop up already-believing or wavering Christians’ faith.

Given how important Christian leaders tend to think apologetics is, and how valuable they think it is in converting the “lost,” it can feel downright surreal to a non-believer to see them cling to these bad arguments and keep parroting them over and over again in hopes that maybe this time they’ll catch non-believers at a bad time and “get through” to them, or at least plant some seed that might blossom later in the form of a conversion.

But there are cracks in that wall. C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter to a friend, “a Christian doctrine never seems less real to me than when I have just (even if successfully) been defending it.” In fact, this hero of Christianity wrote in the same letter that he thought apologetics in general was “very wearing” and “not v. good for one’s own faith,” and he wished that people would quit trying to get him drawn into discussions on the subject. And this is the fellow that is considered one of the top apologetics authors in the entire field, one of the granddaddies of Christian bullshittery!

Christians who do start caring about that little detail of veracity run the risk of losing faith in the entire business of apologetics. When our dear friend Neil Carter of Godless in Dixie finished writing a literal book about apologetics back when he was Christian, he realized something that no doubt filled him with trepidation:

I wrote a book once which encapsulated all the lessons I had learned after 20 years as a Christian and discovered almost immediately after writing it that I no longer believed a word of it.

It’s a dangerous thing for a Christian to get curious about just how persuasive an apologetics argument is, as Neil discovered. I am downright baffled about this insistence Christians keep maintaining about how apologetics will, even if it doesn’t outright convert someone, play a huge role in getting that person converted eventually. If I found out that something wasn’t true and an invalid argument in and of itself, that wouldn’t incline me to buy into its overarching opinion. Rather, it’d make me wonder why that opinion requires bullshit to support itself, and where that opinion’s real basis in fact was.

You know what would make me believe that a given mythological being was actually real? Credible evidence for that being’s existence. If someone wants me to believe that unicorns were real, then a really good start would be clear, undoctored photos of the beasts, DNA tests of their tissues, and videos of them running around and stuff.

Arguments about how unicorns simply must exist and trying to cast doubt on skeptics’ a-unicornism would not do the trick. Snidely referring to a-unicornists as “materialists” or “Darwinists” wouldn’t work either. Nor would sanctimoniously opining that unicornists don’t need no steekin’ evidence. And neither would calling a-unicornists “close-minded” when they ultimately reject these unpersuasive arguments. Every one of these tactics is nothing more than an attempt to stop people from questioning the claim that unicorns exist and to hand-wave away the lack of real evidence involved in these arguments.

Worse, these are all tactics that are commonly used by Christian apologists. They work marvelously well–to keep Christians themselves from venturing too far into critical questioning of their claims, and to keep those Christians from taking seriously the criticisms of their favored apologetics argument.

These tactics then trickle down into believers’ heads, and get trotted out against non-believers.

Folks, the apologists who teach Christians to use these tactics aren’t talking to non-believers at all.

They’re talking to Christians.

Just as Christian apologists aren’t really talking to non-believers when they make their actual arguments, these apologists aren’t really responding to critics themselves when they talk about “Darwinists” and “close-minded” people. They’re actually modeling how they think Christians themselves should react to rejections of their parroted arguments. It’s almost tragic to see Christians run out and try to do the same stuff to non-believers in their own circles of acquaintance, and instead of succeeding they only manage to drive non-believers further and further away, when the whole reason these responses are given by apologists is to keep these Christians themselves from thinking too much! Apologists surely know by now that such demonization has never once worked to make a reality-embracer suddenly stop embracing reality long enough to absorb an apologetics argument. But that’s not the goal. The goal is to show Christians how to avoid embracing reality–and how not to let reality-embracers harsh their buzz.

What ought to shame Christians enormously is that when their arguments fail, instead of finding the evidence that actually would compel belief, they instead denigrate and demonize not only the desire for credible support for claims but those who demand that evidence. But then, I stopped thinking that apologetics is meant to convert people a long time ago. That’s just the stated goal. The actual goal is to keep Christians’ butts in pews, and apologetics does succeed at that–sort of. As the hemorrhage of Christians from church rolls continues to worsen and worsen, I don’t think even that comfort is holding.

Apologetics is not persuasive to non-believers. But it’s hugely persuasive to those who either already believe or who aren’t well-trained in critical thinking skills enough to recognize a bad argument when they see one. As our society starts becoming more aware of those skills, Christian apologists really only have one option: to drill down harder on false arguments and to demonize reality (and those who respect reality) even more. They’re certainly not about to start offering the exact evidence non-believers say would convince us–an insularity of thought which is in a lot of ways a big failure all its own.

The reason I’m talking so much about the general failures of apologetics is so that people who are new to the field of apologetics (or seeing that field through new eyes) can be thinking about those failures as they engage with its arguments. We’re going to talk about that insularity of thought next, and then we’re off to the actual arguments themselves. See you next time!

Posted in Guides, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

A Monopoly on Manliness.

One of the genuinely weirdest turns that fundagelical Christianity has taken in recent decades has been its bizarre emphasis on hypermasculinity and rejection of all that is even vaguely perceived as feminine.

I first encountered this strange focus when looking at the car of a co-worker some six or so years ago; it bore a bumper sticker that declared that “Real Men Love Jesus.” I stared at it in complete befuddlement for a while. I couldn’t even start unpacking the weird fixation on masculinity required to permanently deface one’s vehicle in this manner, or fathom what sort of insecure man would find that kind of message compelling or would make that kind of nonsensical, easily-debunked statement. The co-worker who owned the car in question was a quiet, lumpy, taciturn young fellow with one of those “I give up forever” lumberjack beards. He seemed like the last person in the world to have some definitive opinion about what constitutes a REAL MAN™. In reality, he was bossed around without end by his neurotic, high-strung little wife; they volunteered according to her wishes with a variety of youth camps and Christian causes, but I didn’t think she’d come up with the idea of putting that sticker on the car they shared. I’d never have guessed he’d feel moved to make such a statement as “real men love Jesus.”

Later on, I’d find out about Mark Driscoll and his similarly weird fixation on strongman, he-man, macho Christianity. His vision of a deeply sexist church headed by a super-manly-man macho pastor speaking for an equally super-manly-man macho Jesus is one of the aspects of his ministry that was most criticized back when he was still relevant in the religion–and one could well argue that it was that exact fixation on hypermasculinity that spelled the downfall of both his ministry and his relevance.

I don’t know exactly where it comes from, this obsession Christianity has with deciding who is a REAL MAN™ or REAL WOMAN™, but it seems like the roots of it were already taking hold in fertile soil back when I was Christian. Christianity as a whole sees a lot of life as a zero-sum–and dualistic–game: there are only two diametrically-opposed aspects of the game, and if one aspect of it increases, then the other by definition must decrease because the game can only contain so much at one time. So back then, women’s rights were getting more attention. I was already hearing rumblings from men that if women’s rights increased, then by necessity’s men’s rights would have to decrease. If women made strides in business, science, and industry, then men would by necessity be held back and be unable to make strides themselves. If a teacher began calling more often on little girls, then by necessity that teacher would be calling less often on little boys.

In some ways this vision of the zero sum is correct. The teacher only has so many questions to ask and so much time in which to ask those questions. There are only so many jobs to be had. But the men making these rumbling noises of discontent did not seem to understand that the reason men had gotten so many of those jobs and so many of those questions to answer was because they were getting them at the expense of the rest of the group’s members. That outsized share of the pie hadn’t been theirs fairly and equitably in the first place.

That said, other aspects of the game are not zero sum. Human rights are a major case in point there. If someone is a human being, then certain rights belong to that person. Recognizing rights for one group does not lessen rights for another group. I can tell that a big part of the fundagelical terror about LGBTQ people is a feeling that if LGBTQ people’s human rights become more widely recognized and exercisable (we do not say “granted” nor “given” because that is not what is happening–these rights are theirs, not anybody’s to grant or give–or take or withhold), then somehow–by magic, I reckon–fundagelicals’ rights will become lessened. When non-bigots marvel at how bigots worry so much about their own marriage rights being somehow lessened by the exercise of marriage rights by other groups, they’re not taking into account these bigots’ dualistic, zero-sum thinking. As the Bible verse goes, if one increases, the other must decrease–and that applies to everything in life.

Somehow this idea of a “feminized Christianity” began emerging around my era–and it was not an image of the religion that the people around me liked much. This kind of Christianity was a touchy-feely, non-confrontational, overly “nice,” overly-oriented toward social justice, and overly-emotional religious ideology, one that misogynists imagined was supplanting the very masculine conceptualization of Christianity they preferred. We see Christian leaders talking like this a lot nowadays. From fundagelical Mark Driscoll’s inchoate rage over “pussified” America to a Catholic archbishop whining about how the “feminized Church” is driving men away, it seems like this hatred of women and drilling-down on hypermasculinity is one of the few topics on which Christians at both ends of the Protestant/Catholic spectrum can agree wholeheartedly, the same way that fundagelical Christians might be absolutely pants-shittingly terrified of Islam but secretly admire how effectively Muslim men control “their” women.

I really think that one reason Biff–my preacher then-husband, for the new folks–got into the flavor of Christianity he did was because it offered him a very clear way to achieve masculine identity and gain respect as a man. He had been a bit of a, well, gormless, aimless loser when I’d met him, a conjob wandering in search of his big con; like a lot of narcissists do, he talked a really big game–but his egocentric expansiveness covered up a gaping maw of insecurity. We’d been dating before he converted, but even so, I was astonished at how quickly he slid into that mindset of a sexist Christian man pushing “complementarianism” as THE BONUS PLAN™ for women. Even his mother told me once that she didn’t know how I put up with the incredibly sexist pig her son had turned into and insisted he sure hadn’t learned that attitude from his parents.

I knew he hadn’t. I knew perfectly well where he’d gotten it from: a church that recognized (correctly, it must be conceded) that women’s rights were a huge threat to the hierarchical power structure that lies at the heart of both evangelicals’ and fundamentalists’ view of the world. But neither Biff nor I realized that the threat wasn’t just the obvious one–that women would refuse to play second citizen to men. There was a far more insidious but further-reaching threat under the current of the waters: that men, too, would reject sexism for themselves. It took a little more time for that threat to reach the surface. Once it did, it broke with full force. At that point, it became almost as important for Christian leaders to dictate how men should act as it was for them to try to control what women did.

When I saw this stuff on Christian Nightmares about some bodybuilding evangelical ministry called “Power Team” running around in the early 1990s using feats of showmanship and flimflammery strength to win overly-trusting young people to Christianity, it really took me back. It’s hard to believe that there was a time when young Christians were gullible enough to equate “breaking blocks of (likely doctored-up) ice” with “Jesus is totally real and awesome, dude,” but I can totally see some of the young Christians I knew in high school and college getting into that sort of thing. It was a really heady time, so stuff that would get side-eye from all but the most overenthusiastic of Christians was embraced without questions back then. This unthinking acceptance of sexism wouldn’t happen today without a lot of pushback (a lot of it from Christians, I’m happy to say; I’ve seen ‘em do it)–sort of like how if a movie came out today with a dramatic climax involving a date-rape, people sure wouldn’t take that as an expression of zany comedy or be okay with seeing that rape victim cuddling up adoringly with her rapist on the movie’s poster. Stuff like that is inherently a product and expression of its time. Take it out of that context, and it suddenly looks grotesque and weird. Well, that’s how bodybuilding-and-hypermasculinity-for-Jesus looks nowadays to most folks: a relic of a bygone age.

I can’t especially blame bodybuilding “ministries” for capitalizing on an aspect of their own time: evangelicals’ emphasis on masculinity as an inherent expression of Christianity. Here’s a great article at JSTOR about how these sorts of ostentatious displays fit into the evangelical model and why they succeeded so grandly at it. As its author points out, “muscular Christianity” wasn’t even originated by Power Team’s founder; back around the turn of the century it was being pushed by Billy Sunday, one of the religion’s most successful evangelists, who was himself an ex-professional athlete in that most masculine of professional sports at the time, baseball. To some extent, these kinds of displays have always appealed to a certain segment of Christians.

Before the NABF Bodybuilding Nationals

Before the NABF Bodybuilding Nationals (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But in the 1990s, as women’s rights slowly became accepted by Americans and started looking like an increasing threat to the power structure of evangelicalism, this manly-man Christianity found a new resonance among young men who maybe felt threatened and challenged by the loss of just a little bit of their onetime dominance. By the time I landed in fundamentalism, that extreme thinking manifested in a supreme distrust of women wearing men’s clothes or doing men’s jobs, or trying to steal men’s authority. Even back then, when I was a die-hard, true-blue, gung-ho Christian lass myself, I thought it was a little suspicious that “Jesus” so completely shared my religion’s leaders’ obviously-unjust opinions about women.

Too late, Christians themselves have begun to notice what is happening. I’ve seen some startled opinion pieces about some of the worst examples of this obsession with maleness, and a few worried-sounding pastors trying to figure out how to spin sexism in some sort of positive light to keep people from rejecting it. Here is just one piece that admits that why yes, absolutely, young people see conservative Christian views as hugely sexist as well as bigoted, racist, and homophobic, but in the same breath “makes no apologies” for holding doctrines that are seen that way and clearly is only fretting about finding a way to communicate those ideas without alienating outsiders. This is the general tenor of what you’ll encounter from leaders who even sense at all that sexism is cutting into their bottom line: Men are like this; women are like that; they should interact just-so; and by wild coincidence, Jesus totally agrees. There simply must be a way to say that without pissing off every compassionate person who hears it.

Despite these infrequent and weak warning calls, the tide doesn’t appear to be turning anytime soon–and really, Christians have only themselves to blame for this one. For about thirty years they’ve been busily polarizing their people into increasingly extreme expressions of sexuality and gender. I almost wonder if they were starting a fight they were sure they’d win, much like bullies tend to pick on kids who absolutely can’t defeat them in a fair fight. Well, it backfired; sexism is now one of the major reasons Christians give for leaving the religion–and the younger the people involved, the more likely they’ll reject Christianity’s party lines about both sexuality and gender, even if they’re Christian themselves. And even so, many Christians still cling to those platforms.

Not much gets so many Christians (especially men) quaking in their booties like confusing grayscale vagueness, especially as touching gender and sexuality. The nice thing about Christian sexism is that it gives very clear definitions and behavioral guidelines about everything in life, especially the stuff that is changing rapidly in the real world, and especially the stuff that that spells big changes for Christian culture itself. Though people tend to focus on how Christian sexism treats women, men obviously are distinctly impacted by it as well–and not in a good way. I noticed even as a Christian that many of the men around me largely defined themselves by how not-womanly they are (which itself relies upon a definition of womanhood that is, at best, overly-simplified, insultingly condescending, and essentialist). So if women stop fitting into those definitions Christians envision for women, then it gets a lot harder for men in that culture to define themselves; we see that thinking in operation when Christian leaders snidely ask who wears the pants in a marriage when women get too uppity, and when ignorant people ask lesbians which one of them is the ‘man’ in the relationship.

A big part of the problem is that evangelical Christians tend to need a lot of structure in their lives, and also don’t cope well with uncertainty.  Without those markers and boundaries, without those limits, without those carefully-drawn lines, people who have a high need for structure and authority start feeling adrift and uncertain. I can’t imagine a worse group of people to encounter a sudden sea change in how men and women alike view themselves and their proper roles in society, or a dramatic shift in how relationships work, than a group that needs a lot of structure and can’t deal gracefully with change. Christians like that are operating under a paradigm that can’t be questioned or altered without risking eternal punishment. Often their response is to drill down even harder on the faulty paradigm, to the point where that paradigm ends up looking like a comical caricature–and where men and women start looking like cartoon versions of the real thing. Ideal womanliness starts looking like a cartoon fusion of Angelina Jolie and June Cleaver, while ideal manliness starts looking like a cartoon fusion of Conan the Barbarian and Atticus Finch. Real men and women who can’t contort themselves into those models get seen as less-than in a great many directions–like I was for not being able to conform to it, and like many men I’ve talked to since deconverting felt like for not being able to be manly-man enough.

So groups like Power Team descended upon a Christian America eager and ravenous for the exact brand of extreme machismo peddled by these testosterone-addled,  corn-fed, bull-necked hulks. At first it caught on like gangbusters. Thanks to clever showmanship and a studied manipulation of audiences’ emotions, money poured into the hands of these evangelists. They hit a chord with their target. Judging by the numbers involved, it seems to me that the only reason I hadn’t really heard of them was that I was Pentecostal–which means I didn’t get into television or sports, and certainly wouldn’t be caught dead at what amounted to a wrestling match. I held such ostentatious displays in deep contempt and thought that if someone “got saved” as a result of this sort of hot-dogging, it wouldn’t stick very well–and would probably involve a flavor of Christianity that I didn’t approve of anyway. I sure couldn’t imagine “the original church,” this nebulous concept I had of the earliest incarnation of Christianity, involving strongmen flexing their oiled-up biceps and grunting and panting into carefully-positioned microphones as they broke handcuffs and roared at misbehaving audience members. I find myself looking at the photos and writeups of these displays and even now I’m just astounded that anybody ever thought this was how to convert people and get them closer to “Jesus.”

As the rest of America got tired of the all-manliness, all-the-time, always-on model of masculinity and moved on, groups like Power Team faded in relevance as well. Their one schtick was no longer valued like it had been, and they floundered as they sought to find another angle to get the money flowing again. The leader of Power Team ended up divorcing his wife under rather quiet, understated, carefully-guarded conditions–and he declared ministerial and personal bankruptcy as well, though the judge was, according to Vice, less than impressed with the personal part of that claim, all but flat-out calling him a baldfaced liar to his face (sort of like how the Kitzmiller v. Dover judge talked about the Creationist school board members in his famous decision; a pity that liars-for-Jesus don’t seem to possess any sense of shame).

Let us hope that the fading of this brand of outsized, overstated, overblown masculinity is a sign that some of Christianity’s other sexist leanings are also fading. It is genuinely heartwarming to see so many Christians rejecting this kind of sexism. I hope it continues.

A final thought:

If you can, do read that JSTOR link (you can sign up with them for free now!–and it’s an amazing clearinghouse for these sorts of scholarly pieces) for info about how they rigged their tricks and stunts to better awe the masses, and while you’re reading, be thinking about something its author only hinted at but which would have sprung out at me immediately even back then (I hope): Why does it seem like such evangelists know instinctively that “Jesus” isn’t a strong enough sell? Why do they need all these bells and whistles, all these fog machines and gadgets and stunts, to sell something that is supposed to be a real live god who passionately loves and cares about humankind?

Indeed, that was one argument deployed to devastating effect regarding Scholastic book fairs‘ marketing tactics: that giving kids presents for doing the right things sends them the message that doing those things is not, in and of itself, satisfying and rewarding. Rewarding children for getting good grades, eating healthy foods, behaving themselves when out and about, and reading books tells them that they should do those things for the bribe they’ll get for doing them, not because those behaviors are constructive and healthy. I see the same stuff going on in a big chunk of Christianity, and I’ve often heard young people say that when they got older and graduated from their youth groups to “grown-up” church, they really struggled with that transition. People don’t turn 18 (or complete their indoctrination classes!) and magically stop expecting, wanting, or caring about bribes.

And non-believers might already know this stuff, but it seems a little weird that Christians themselves might be making such an implicit declaration about the necessity of showmanship to sell their religion to the unwary.

Posted in Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The Handbook: The First Fundamental Mistake Apologists Make.

Last time we talked about the various ways that I got induced to believe in Christianity. I briefly made a mention of apologetics, and wanted to start talking about some of the arguments that specifically held my attention. Before that, though, I want to talk about apologetics in general.

Apologetics has a more or less official definition: “the defense and establishment of the Christian faith.” I prefer the definition given by a UU minister and seminary graduate I know, who explained it more or less like this: “the attempt to make bullshit more believable.”

What apologetics really does is try to make Christianity sound more factual without actually referring to or discovering any actual facts that support its own underlying assumptions about reality. That’s its first fundamental mistake.

English: Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome.

English: Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Fine hunting, once… once.

Long, long ago at the very start of the Renaissance, a lawyer in Rome was having a wine cellar dug for his villa and accidentally ran across a very famous ancient site–right in his own basement. At the time, Rome was a backwater, a disreputable and shabby little town where peasants crowded the Tiber (because the aqueducts had been destroyed centuries ago), hunted in the forests and fields around what had once been the Campidoglio, and wondered what all those ruins all over the place had been long ago. The Catholic Church was officially centered there (most of the time), sure, but it certainly wasn’t the glittering, glamorous, art-packed metropolitan city we know today; shepherds led flocks of animals down the main streets at night and just about none of those streets were even paved. So this discovery the lawyer made was one of the ones that kicked off what was to become a genuine craze for archaeology and the first beginnings of Rome’s rebirth.

But these first “archaeologists” didn’t actually go digging for their finds.

Instead, they consulted ancient texts to try to ferret out where Classical landmarks might have been.

To us their approach might sound nonsensical, but then, since we’re 500 years removed from that lawyer, we know that the only way to find this stuff out is largely to get your hands dirty. We examine satellite images, or we get an idea of where ancient people settled from other archaeological finds, and we go dig. If someone tried to make a case for the location of the city of Troy by just going by Homeric epics, we’d rightly think that person was daft.

That’s how I think about apologetics. Instead of actually looking at facts, apologists consult an ancient document to try to get a feel for how the supernatural world works and they make arguments about what they think it’s like, all based on that document.

The first fundamental mistake apologists make is that they don’t actually refer to any facts to make their various arguments, making their conclusions highly suspect.

Indeed, apologists really can’t do that. It’s almost unfair even to make the request that they do so. After all:

There is not one single demonstrable bit of objective evidence about the supernatural to which they actually could refer.

Sometimes you’ll hear this aspect of apologetics called “presuppositional,” which means the field relies on assumptions to move forward. If Christians had to demonstrate that there actually is a supernatural realm and that it has deities and demons and angels in it who can interfere with this world before they could move forward with any of their arguments, there’d be no apologetics as a field at all. So instead apologists simply take for granted that their assumptions about the world and about the supernatural are true. Not only is it much easier to go that route, it’s absolutely essential.

That’s one of the reasons why apologetics, as a discipline, doesn’t actually convince many people to convert to Christianity–unless they’re either at a really vulnerable moment or never learned how to critically examine apologetics arguments. We live in a culture steeped in assumptions about the supernatural–from daily horoscopes to ghost stories to near-24/7 religious immersion to chain forwards, even as far as conspiracy theories, pseudoscience quackery, and fad diets, many folks in this culture are primed to be at least receptive to the ideas that apologists take for granted. Someone who is aware of the assumptions being made and demands evidence for those assumptions before taking the plunge might be mocked and criticized by Christians, but such a person is not going to be swayed.

But that exact same reason is why apologetics makes so many Christians more certain of their faith. They already buy into the assumptions made by these arguments’ creators. They’re already totally on board. Some might kind of understand that the arguments rest on assumptions that are never credibly supported, but the conclusions sound right so they aren’t quite as worried about that problem as they should be. Apologetics is meant for them, not for non-believers. If apologetics was really meant for non-believers, then its serious flaws would have been addressed long ago.

And as long as Christians don’t sweat too much why they believe what they do, everything is okay. As soon as those assumptions get challenged, trouble looms ahead as inevitably as the waterfall at the end of a river in a movie.


That’s why one of apologists’ chief tactics is–as William Lane Craig demonstrates so often–to flat-out declare those assumptions as truths and proceed from there to the shitty argument, willfully ignorant of the fact that what is created is in essence a circular argument. By getting that elephant–Christianity’s total lack of credible supportive evidence–declared to be a non-issue, apologists are able to get to the stuff they really want to say, and their audiences are able to more easily dive into the topic alongside them. This strategy is a very clever one; it absolves Christians of the very question of evidence. Back in my day, I interpreted this tactic as implying that there was no need to demonstrate the credibility of those assumptions because they were all foregone conclusions. I thought there was so much evidence that nobody needed to stop and reiterate it all, in the same way that biology takes for granted that evolution is a real thing that actually happens in the real world; that millions of experiments as well as findings in dozens of related fields all support evolution’s predictions and claims is a fact that does not have to be rehashed every single time someone writes a peer-reviewed paper about some aspect of it. When apologists I was reading didn’t dwell on demonstrating that the supernatural was real or that Jesus was divine, I took it as meaning, in the same way, that these sorts of claims had already been well-established.

If that trick doesn’t work, apologetics authors and speakers can always demonize the very need to demonstrate those assumptions, or they’ll say that they’ll do it later on and then never get around to it. Either works; Christians have been primed to think of demands for evidence as antithetical to having faith, and few people nowadays of any religious persuasion have the attention span needed to remember that the apologist never did get around to providing that proof that was promised. I’ve seen both in action. I often get told that if I don’t accept the “truth” of these assumptions then that’s just proof that I don’t have enough faith (yet)–and that I clearly didn’t have enough faith to keep believing those same assumptions when I was Christian. Or I’ll be told that if I can’t get on board with apologists’ assumptions, then it means that “God” hasn’t seen fit to magically make me believe them. I’ll hear that people aren’t allowed to–or able to–question or “judge” this god, or to make demands for credible evidence about him. By this evasion, they mean I’m not allowed to make demands of those arrogant enough to presume to speak on this god’s behalf or to question anything regarding the myths about this god, obviously, since no god is actually speaking to anybody in the real world–and they’re likely really hoping I don’t figure that out.

If all else fails, then I can be accused of being perfectly on board with the assumptions being made but having some diabolical ulterior motive for denying the truth of them. I “just wanted to sin,” and if I accept that the apologists’ assumptions are true then I apparently can no longer sin with impunity (because Christians never knowingly sin, and someone would happily sacrifice an eternity of bliss just to have sex–since that’s what “sinning” means to almost all Christians trotting out this old chestnut). But if I deny those assumptions then I am not morally bound to obey Christianity’s many behavioral rules or to constrain myself from breaking any of them (what I would say about this one idea is a whole other blog post all by itself, but the short answer is that this sentiment is breathtaking bullshit). So obviously I would need to lie about whether or not I think apologists’ assumptions are true.

“Debating” apologists gets so frustrating. We both come at the world from such different places. I learn new things so I can grow in understanding of reality and the people and world around me; those who love apologetics, by contrast, assimilate and synthesize debunked and weak (but impressive-sounding, to those who don’t know better) talking points in order to regurgitate them in support of a desired conclusion and thereby to persuade others of those conclusions.

In any other rational discussion, if people want to argue about exactly how Krypto flies, they will first establish that Krypto actually exists.

Apologists, by contrast, are happy to assume there really is a Krypto in the first place and leap off from there.

I’m also a comic book and gaming nerd, and those sorts of friendly debates can be a lot of fun. I’ve spent more hours than I want to think about arguing about exactly what elves in such-and-such gameworld “should” act like in a given situation, or how the mechanics of magic in that-other gameworld operate. It’d be beyond boorish to stop and furiously ask how we know elves or magic even exist. To have these arguments, participants all have to assume that they’re talking about the context of a particular setting or gameworld, one in which these things can or do or should exist. If that was what apologists were doing, then that wouldn’t be too bad.

But that’s not what they’re doing. They’re not arguing from the context of a shared hobby/fandom or a pretendy funtime roleplaying game universe. They’re trying to make a case for a religious idea, one that has repercussions in the real world, one that they want other people to also buy into and follow along with them, one that impacts them in their real everyday lives and that they think impacts their audience in the the same way. Using our Krypto example, if someone was trying to tell me that my eternal fate depended on believing in Krypto’s existence or that the character could influence my everyday life, then yes, it’d matter quite a bit if he was actually a real dog and not just a comic-book character.

Because there is no more evidence supporting a god’s existence than there is supporting the existence of Krypto the Superdog or elves, apologists have to find some way to make people either forget to ask about that evidence or to make them think that showing evidence isn’t necessary. That’s why apologetics, as a field, is inherently dishonest.

Something real doesn’t need apologetics to make its case. Nobody has to argue about the moral imperative of there existing Fuji apples, or debate about whether or not the grocery store on the corner sells them. We can see that Fuji apples exist and we can go look at the grocery store’s produce section to see if it stocks them. I don’t need to make long, elaborate analogies about Atomic Theory; I can run experiments that demonstrate that it is true. I don’t need to shame people into recognizing that hand-washing is important; I can show them that it is absolutely necessary to wash one’s hands avoid spreading germs and diseases. And if a god existed, especially a “personal god” like the one Christians claim they have, there is absolutely no way that objective, credible proof of that god’s existence wouldn’t be visible everywhere, to everyone on the planet. It’d be as obvious as the apples in a fruit bowl. Nobody would need to construct elaborate arguments about it.

Out of everything I wish bothered Christians, I wish it bothered them that there is no evidence at all for their apologetics assumptions and that all they’ve got is words, words, words that ultimately add up to exactly jack. If they wanted me to think their religion was based on objective facts, apologetics accomplishes the polar opposite of persuading me of that position: it makes me wonder why they are using apologetics instead of showing me those facts they imply they have.

I find apologetics hugely dishonest because it not only rests on unproven, unverified assumptions but either brushes aside or ignores that it’s doing so. Not credibly supporting its own underlying assumptions is its first big error–and its worst, most egregious one. Not that there aren’t many others, and we’ll talk about more of those later. See you next week!


* Has Science Buried God?. A transcript of a debate between WLC and Lawrence Krauss in which Dr. Krauss flat-out accuses WLC of lying his ass off whenever he thinks he can get away with it. The only thing I admire about WLC is that he’ll put his debate videos and transcripts up on his site even though he and his religion both off looking worse in every one of them. At least he’s not trying to hide it, though I suspect that, as Robert Price has suggested, WLC knows he can’t actually demonstrate a single thing he claims and is hoping that sheer emotional manipulation and dishonest wordplay will carry him to victory.

Posted in Guides, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 39 Comments

The Handbook: Examining the Evidence.

When I became a fundamentalist, I had been a lifelong–though temporarily lapsed–Christian as it was. I’d flirted with being a Southern Baptist for a while and I’d grown up Catholic, and I’d tangled with a few other denominations and visited other churches enough to know what was out there.

I converted to fundamentalism in my teens because I thought it had the most credible and compelling evidence for itself.

I was not stupid.

I was not willfully-ignorant.

I was not mentally ill.

Neither are most Christians, even the most hardcore of them.

It is not only cruel to say otherwise, it is inaccurate. This is a mischaracterization that doesn’t help anybody on either side of the church door. I wish people would quit saying that kind of thing.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rather, I was indoctrinated–which means I was tricked by the intentional and considered manipulation of my hopes, fears, and cognitive biases, and I was too young to realize what was going on. There is a big difference between being indoctrinated and being stupid, willfully-ignorant, or mentally ill (plus it’s not okay to accuse people of mental illness). That indoctrination made me believe I had evidence for my beliefs.

Here is a short list of the “evidence” I thought my religion had to support itself.

* I thought the Bible was historically true.
Like a lot of bright-eyed new-ish/young Christians, I was convinced that the Bible’s historical claims were true and had really happened the way the Bible said they’d happened. I didn’t yet know that absolutely nothing in the Bible happened like that. No Creation, no Exodus, no powerful priest-kings administering a vast and advanced kingdom, no Flood, no massacre of toddlers, no great Roman Census forcing a pregnant virgin to travel to her ancestors’ homeland, no great sages traveling impossible distances to witness a virgin birth, no miracles, no rock-star Messiah entering Jerusalem, nothing.

One by one, I found out that these historical claims never happened; every single time, it rocked my faith. When we run across Christians who make that claim today, it’s a great way to weed out the ones who actually understand and know their religion’s early history and holy book, and the ones who don’t. The only way to believe something like this is to be completely ignorant of all reputable scholarship on the subject. And don’t get me started on what happened when my Christian peers started to get buggy about Creationism; I’ve mentioned before that I wasn’t a Young-Earth Creationist myself, but I knew some and they were just embarrassing.

* I thought miracles really happened.
Like a great many Christians, I was totally sure that miracles not only had happened in the Bible’s days but that they totally happened all the time in my own time. Stories abounded of people who’d been healed of cancer and depression, who’d been exorcised, who spoke in foreign tongues, who’d discovered huge sums of money that they hadn’t expected, who’d been given divine insight into others’ thoughts, who’d developed remarkable skills without practice, who’d escaped all manner of bad luck and natural disasters, and other such tales.

Over time, though, I learned to my great consternation that not a single one of these events was really anything supernatural. Every one of them, once investigated, turned out to be exaggeration, outright lies, or a coincidence–if not the direct result of a person’s own action. I never once have seen or heard of a “miracle” that was both credibly supported by evidence and clearly supernatural in nature. This “god” seems to operate solely by means that cannot be discerned as supernatural.

* I thought my religion made believers better people than non-believers could, on average, become on their own–either through miraculous intervention, through following the Bible’s rules, or through the discipline that following it would engender in people.
Even after finding out how many liars existed in my religion, even after finding out just how far hypocrisy extended through the ranks of believers, I clung to this idea for a ludicrously long time. “You can’t be good without ‘God'” is a favorite saying for a reason among Christians.

Obviously, no, Jesus doesn’t magically make people better, and even if you get away from the “instant magic” claim that so many Christians make (especially regarding their conversions), longtime Christians who show every sign of having spiritual discipline and who trumpet their religious zealotry to the skies can still be absolutely awful people. Hell, I’d almost go so far as saying that the louder someone is about their piety, the greater the chance that that person is awful. There’s no guarantee whatsoever that a Christian is any more moral than anybody else would be, any more than there’s a guarantee that a non-Christian is immoral. Worst of all, what I thought was a uniquely Christian morality turned out to be largely a glorified version of “might makes right” dosed with serious classism, sexism, and racism; its few genuinely moral aspects turned out to be far from unique to Christianity.

* I trusted apologists.
A seminary graduate I once knew told me that apologetics is the art of explaining why reality never lines up with religious expectations. Not a single apologetics argument out there is actually compelling to anybody who can think critically. Those arguments exist solely to make believers feel less insane for believing. These works have exploded in popularity over the last few decades as modern minds wrestle with the obvious problem of believing in nonsense for no good reason. There’s some big money in apologetics, if you can do it convincingly. Not as many of these bullshit artists existed in my day, and certainly when I was a Christian we didn’t push their works and parrot their arguments at non-believers in hopes of converting them like we see Christians doing today. But we all knew the arguments.

I’ve re-read some of the major apologetics books since deconverting, and I came out of it downright embarrassed that I ever took this stuff seriously. The big problem with apologetics is that it’s all ad hoc reasoning and logical fallacies, but I’m not surprised. Every bit of it forgets to actually support the notion that anything it’s discussing is actually objectively true, so the chances of one of these folks actually hitting upon a genuinely compelling argument ain’t great. At the time I initially heard these arguments, I had no idea how to analyze what they were saying and I already kinda bought into their premises, so they sounded very compelling. Now that I can and don’t, every apologetics argument just sounds like kids arguing about how Batman’s car works.

* I mistook arguments for evidence and had no idea how to assess claims.
A big part of why I trusted apologists was that I didn’t have the faintest idea how to assess any claims. I was completely happy to use the Bible as proof of the Bible’s claims. I trusted “authorities” who weren’t actually credible experts in the topics in which they claimed knowledge. I had no trouble believing arguments in lieu of having actual credible support for claims. The list could go on and on and on. We’ll talk about more of those fallacies later on, don’t worry, but I just wanted to put out here that I, too, fell into the same trap that we see so many Christians falling into today.

When I began learning about logical fallacies, you can bet I got really uncomfortable very quickly when I thought about just how much of my religious faith was based on what amounted to smoke and mirrors.

* I was scared to death of Hell and being “left behind” by the Rapture.
Nobody in the religion really likes to talk much about this aspect of Christianity, but fear is definitely a huge factor in a lot of people’s conversions–and in a lot of people’s continued membership in a religion which otherwise they’d have left a long time ago. As nonsensical as the idea of Hell is, as obviously intended to be a tool of control and manipulation of the unwary and vulnerable, it really scares the bejeezus out of people. It is designed to do so. There is a reason why Christians’ descriptions of Hell have gotten more and more violent, ghastly, grotesque, punitive, disproportional, and lurid over the years–and why their freakout over “the Rapture” has gotten more and more concerted over the years. And oh, these threats worked on me.

I know now that if something can’t be supported by any other tactic than terrorizing people, it can’t possibly be true. Not a single Christian (or anybody else, really) has even ever shown that any kind of afterlife exists, much less that Hell exists. But they’re still happy to threaten me with shit they can’t even prove conclusively is real–and if I converted on that basis, they’d happily take it even if I didn’t “love” their ghastly bully of a “god” at all. If I said I was only in the religion because I was afraid, my fellow Christians might express concern, but I sure wouldn’t be disbarred from fellowship over that nicety. And if I rejected those doctrines out of hand and refused to allow them to take up room in my mind, I’d face insults, ostracism, and possibly death threats from “loving” Christians. Fear works, so someone who isn’t afraid is a huge, huge problem; that person cannot be controlled and manipulated as easily.

* I thought that my religion, unique among all religions, had a real live god who’d incarnated among humans and loved us and interacted with us.
Thinking that Christianity was unique and special among all religions was a big part of why I was Christian for as long as I was. I thought that all the other adherents of other religions were so very pitiable because their gods weren’t real and mine was (neener!). I thought that none of them had a god who’d incarnated to walk among people. I thought that only my god loved his creation. I thought that only my god really reached down and interacted with his people even today.

Oh, how wrong I was. Even getting past how unlikely it is that the Bible’s god is really a real god, there’s no reason to suspect that he’d be the only one. There’s exactly as much evidence for the Bible’s god’s existence as there is for the gods of every other religion–which is to say, none at all. And it gets worse. Anybody who thinks that the Bible’s god is the only incarnation story around hasn’t read a lot of mythology. Some of the most moving stories of feeling loved by one’s god(s), as well, comes from the fervent pagans I’ve known, who are only too happy to share details of that love. Miracles? Oh, every single religion in the world has those–and many actually outdo the fake-ass “miracles” of located car-keys and lost parking spots that Christians claim (with as much evidence–again, none).

* I didn’t understand that I owned my own body and I consequently had no idea how to form healthy boundaries.
I struggled with how so many Christian denominations present subjugation and erosion of boundaries as THE BONUS PLAN™, but I didn’t question the idea that I was, by dint of my gender, meant to serve the other gender and that I faced a number of restrictions and indignities meant to preserve those denominations’ cherished hierarchy and keep me docile. I realize that a very, very few Christian groups don’t buy into this shockingly, appallingly hateful and obviously-man-made ideology, but unfortunately they do not speak for the religion as a whole (yet). I was reading a Christian article not five minutes ago while researching this post wherein the author tried to tell his peers “Hey, gang, let’s lay off the anti-gay bigotry already, because it is seriously hurting our witness worldwide,” and it didn’t take more than a few minutes for his “loving” tribe to gallop in to bash him with anti-gay clobber verses and declare loudly and confidently that showing such bigotry is a totally undeniable thing that all Christians must do or else they’re not Christian and will go to Hell. There is no sense whatsoever of the value of consent in the general body of Christian behavior and thought. Not only do Christians largely not care about it, they actively denigrate it and try to destroy it; they glorify denying other people their self-ownership and think that hassling and hurting others makes Jesus happy. And for a long time, I didn’t see the problem here.

Now I do know better, and I’ll never fall for such overreach ever again. Fuck those denominations, fuck their members’ pious, preening Jesus smiles as they rip other people’s bodies, relationships, and lives apart and away from them, and fuck the horses they rode in on.

One by one, bit by bit, all of this “evidence” I thought I had was dismantled.

A miracle turned out to be an urban legend or solidly debunked otherwise. A historical claim turned out to be untrue. A Christian turned out to be a major, major hypocrite or an atheist turned out to be a good person. I learned about a non-Christian who felt loved by some other god and claimed a miracle from that god. I realized there was no reason whatsoever to take seriously the ideas of Hell or Rapture. And so on and so forth.

I’ve used the imagery of a pool in the past, a pool containing all the misapplied, misconstrued, made-up, and exaggerated “evidence” I mistakenly thought supported my religion. That’s proven to be a very good bit of imagery, the more I think about it. As one by one this false “evidence” got unmasked and dismissed, the pool began to empty. Eventually, it drained away entirely, and at that point I no longer believed. It was that simple.

It just took a long time because I started with a really big pool.

Now that I’ve learned what I have, I’m persuaded that there is not one single piece of really compelling evidence for a single truth claim from any religion at all, past or present. I don’t hold it against anybody if they think they have a pool full of evidence. Sometimes it just takes time to learn the truth. And what someone does with the truth is up to them. Not everybody will leave the religion over finding out that none of it is based on reality.

It’s very sad to me that so much of Christianity–especially the worst forms of it–is based on lies, ignorance, half-truths, and exaggerations. Back in Christianity’s ancient history, at least one of its biggest thinkers decried the religion’s tendency to glorify such falseness; this early writer knew that doing so really hurt the religion’s image and credibility in outsiders’ eyes and caused adherents to “stumble.” And he was right. A believer whose faith utterly depends on the falsehoods I’ve named here is going to, well, fall when he or she finds out just how little of that “evidence” is true. Finding out even one verse in the Bible can’t possibly be true is enough to jolt a believer into critically assessing the whole thing–and that journey generally is not going to end in anything but tragic disappointment.

But I’ll tell you what I totally don’t respect: someone who, after coming face to face with the truth, turns away from it to cling to a comforting lie. That’s when someone goes from simple ignorance to willful ignorance, and it’s as clear as the noonday sun when a Christian does it. Christians who do this are not only a symptom of their religion’s problem, an outgrowth of its sickness, and a manifestation of its rotting, festering disease, but they are also a big part of why their religion is failing as hard as it is. The reason people are turning off from Christianity is because not only is it not factually, objectively true, but that it cherishes lies, self-delusion, and overreach as much as it does. I don’t care if a religion’s based on objectively untrue myths (they all are!), but I do care enormously if its adherents press onward with the illusion that it’s based on objective facts when so clearly it is not, and I care even more when they get downright indignant when that truth is brought to their attention and use lies to control other people’s lives.

We’re all entitled to our own opinions. We’re just not entitled to our own facts.

We’re going to start in on the fallacies themselves, and examine some of these major apologetics authors in the days to come.  I certainly hope you’ll join me.

PS: This wasn’t directed at anyone particular. I’ve been planning the topic for a while.

Posted in Biography, Guides, Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The Handbook: Learning to Move Past Religious Narcissism.

On the first episode of the rebooted Cosmos, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about our “cosmic address”, which is what someone from across the universe would write on a letter’s envelope to make sure it gets to us:

Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, Local Group, Virgo Supercluster, Observable Universe.

We recently added another line to that cosmic address–did you notice? After “Virgo supercluster,” we now have Laniakea, a galactic supercluster that comprises Virgo and some other local superclusters. Scientists have figured out how to tell what galaxies and groups are part of our galactic supercluster, and in addition and almost as importantly, they finally have a model of it that fits predictions and equations both.

If you watch that clip–and I highly recommend you do–then you’ll perhaps notice something I noticed in it, something that maybe only someone who was steeped for a lifetime in religious narcissism would notice. It is perhaps strangely fitting that not only is our solar system kinda on the far-flung edge of its little galaxy, but also that our very galaxy is on the far-flung edge of its galactic supercluster. Noticing that was a bit like noticing that some billionaire’s mansion had a terrible zip code. I’ve been reading science blogs for a while today and haven’t noticed anybody mentioning how, well, hole-in-the-wall, how deliciously poorly-situated we seem to be. All the exciting stuff is happening over at the Great Attractor (like it seems like it is at the center of our own galaxy!), and we’re off farting around on our little alley walkup flat thinking we’re all that.

Earth's Location in the Universe SMALLER (JPEG)

Earth’s Location in the Universe SMALLER (JPEG) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What astonishes me is that in the middle of all that, I really thought at one time that every bit of it was created by a loving god just for me to play in. It’d be like a doting grandpa creating a scale replica of Renaissance Rome in the middle of Ohio, complete with costumed actors of all types, all the aqueducts and art, and of course the Tiber River snaking through it all, for the delight of a visiting eighteen-month-old toddler.

I was taught that this sort of display was totally within my god’s power–he was infinite, so really making this sort of universe wasn’t a difficulty at all. Regrowing limbs was obviously out of the question, and I was shit out of luck if I wanted him to give me a single bit of undeniable evidence that he even existed–but making an entire universe full of quarks and quasars, full of elegantly graceful superclusters and creepy giant black holes, that was all completely and totally reasonable.

Why the universe existed at all was as big a question as how it had come to exist in its current form.

And in answer to that manufactured need of a question, my religion said proudly and loudly and often: The universe exists as it does because obviously human beings needed somewhere to live. But don’t get any ideas, it continued: you’re still totally unworthy of this universe’s Creator and damned lucky he condescends to let you into the party van after you die, because nothing you do merits being in that van. But yeah, all that you behold was made simply so you would have somewhere nice to sit down. Don’t get attached to it, though, because after a while that Creator will become the Destructor, sure as the night must follow the day, and he will tear it all down because its purpose will have been fulfilled. At least you’re incredibly smart and discerning enough to have made exactly the correct choice about who to worship!

Seriously, as I asked last time: how could someone come out of that with anything but a messed-up sense of their own importance?

I’m spending a lot of time on this topic in our Handbook for the Recently Deconverted because I know I struggled to figure out the big picture about just where I fit into the grand scheme of things, and I’m sure others do as well. I want to spend a little time talking specifically about how I began making strides to understand my own value after leaving a religion that both slapped me down constantly and overinflated me constantly–often in the same breath.

Did you know there’s a whole raft of cognitive biases about how humans often under- or overestimate themselves? Usually it’s in the direction of overestimation, and for a good reason. It can be really hard to figure out just where we stand. Our natural tendency is to overestimate our awesomeness.

* Illusory superiority can make people overestimate how good they are at something or how above-average they are.

* The Dunning-Kruger effect leads to unskilled people thinking they’re skilled–and more to the point, way better skilled than they really are.

* The Overconfidence effect leads people to think that their guesses are better than they really are (in that link it talks about how people who say they’re 99% certain turn out to be wrong about 40% of the time!).

* The False Consensus Effect causes us to think that our opinions are more representative of our culture and group than they really are.

* The Choice-supportive bias makes us remember our choices as being better than they really were–rationalizing those choices as the best possible one whether they were or not.

Feel free to take a look at the whole list–the point here is that while a lot of these seem like they reinforce an overinflated view of ourselves, not all of them are flattering, and some of them could be downright disastrous if taken too far.

Just knowing about these biases helped me a lot when I was figuring my shit out. Just having names for it all made such a huge difference to recovering from my cosmic assholery. But there was more to it than that.

It can be painful to realize, after a lifetime of “you’re so incredibly special and all this was for you,” that no, really, if that were the case then this “god” would have a lot of explaining to do about his sheer, reckless wastefulness and incompetence. Hopefully the sheer scale of galactic superclusters would be enough to shake someone who still possesses a sense of shame out of feeling that all this universe was really just because a god thought we’d like to see stars shining at night (which is the stated reason I was told in a few different Christian denominations for why the universe was so vast). I can’t even fathom thinking that way and knowing about Laniakea at the same time.

That’s one reason I value astronomy like I do, and history. In astronomy, we learn that every bit, every single piece of human achievement, every single thing we’ve done, is less than a grain of sand on a beach compared to the cosmic web of all those interconnected galactic superclusters. The sheer size and scope of what we’ve found staggers and dwarfs the imagination, leaves us gasping and straining to hold it all in our minds. We grapple with numbers like “400 million light-years” and “billions of years,” and look at concepts like curved space-time and black holes with so much suspicion that it can lead us to doubt they exist even when we find evidence of them aplenty. Next to that, a tiny tribal Ancient Near Eastern storm-god throwing fits about genital mutiliation starts to seem a little, well, banal. There is a lot of astonishing stuff out in our universe, and not only are we finding more about it every single day, but we’re finding out how much more there is of it than we ever suspected–and also finding out how little of it aligns with Christian theology.

But I feel the same way about human history.

I’ve heard that about 7,500 generations of humans separate me from the first homo sapiens to emerge blinking into the light, and about 500 generations have come and gone since the beginning of human civilization. I love the idea of genealogy–of finding out about my ancestors. I’ve found some astonishing stuff about my own family, but I can only go back so far. I wonder sometimes what those 500 generations of ancestors, in particular, were like. I wonder how they loved, and fought, and wrestled, and yearned, and strove. I wonder what my many-times-great-grandmothers’ dreams looked like and I wonder who they fucked (or were fucked by, alas) to produce the next generation, and if they and their partners were good to each other. I wonder who among my ancestors was a warrior, a slave, a religious figurehead, an artist, or a leader. And I wonder how they died. A lot can happen in 500 generations. Only the last 100 or so of those generations would have been Christian–if that many, considering that some of the countries involved in my ancestry weren’t Christian till the Dark Ages or later. I wonder what they believed and if they really bought into it or if they questioned it or rejected it altogether.

The grand sweep of history in all its glory really is a recent arc, only the last few thousand years or so, a tidal wave that began from a humble seeping of here-and-there findings and discoveries: fire, wheels, weapons, tools, food tech, precession, that built up and rushed to a roar of life. And yet that sweep of history is what brought us all here; each of us is a tiny little droplet of water in that ocean-sized wave. One day maybe future generations will puzzle over our written grocery lists and our LiveJournals, or marvel at our mortgage applications and FMLA paperwork. We don’t and really can’t know what will be ephemeral and what will last the ages; I’ve seen an ancient Babylonian marriage contract outlining just how much land a middle-class farmer’s daughter will get when she is married off, and I’ve searched in vain for important documents related to super-famous political figures in the 1500s. What we get is as maddeningly inconsistent sometimes as the fossils that archaeologists luck into finding. Worse, oh infinitely worse than the sheer inconsistency of the finds we make is the precious fragility of our more modern outpourings, all of it slowly turning to dust and jagged edges before we get a chance to transfer it all to something less prone to deterioration. There will come a day when nobody alive knows who Howdy Doody was, or what “Thriller” sounded like, or why the United States had to insert language into its laws to specifically prevent religion from overstepping its bounds in government (I like to think sometimes that the entire Separation Clause will remind our future generations of those stupid laws about it being illegal to ride an ostrich in rush-hour traffic that we see in forwards).

It’s an awe-inspiring and yes, staggering picture. It humbles me and exalts me to imagine what went into bringing us all to the point we’re at now. I’m not having kids, but I still see myself as one link in a very vast chain, as standing on the shoulders of many, many ancestors who lived and died before me. Even though I’m not having kids, I don’t see that chain as dying with myself. When I die, I will go into the mix along with them and hopefully become part of what forms the next generation’s minds and ideas, if not its DNA. DNA’s almost paltry compared to that contribution. Nobody really needs my shitty DNA to be passed on, trust me; my family is wonderful but we’re not exactly genetic ubermensch. And my story is just one of several other billion; my ancestors mingled and mixed with those of a great many other people and chances are you, reading my words, are related to me somewhere and somehow. All we need, really, is to find out how–if we can.

Through it all, we muddle through our individual lives and in so doing we are part of that sweep of history and that vast, gripping picture of space. Individually, we are of greater or lesser importance in our communities–fish of varying sizes squeezing alongside other fish in varying ponds. But together, we can accomplish great things. We got lucky enough–through a series of total coincidences–to develop consciousness, minds, and social cohesion, which carried us through to where we are today. That doesn’t make us gods, but it does make us human, and that’s better than gods because it’s true. We did not use religious knowledge to find out what galactic superclusters are; we used the scientific method and very simple, stable rules to figure out what was real and what wasn’t. No Popes or pastors helped figure out what Laniakea was. Scientists did that. And religious leaders have almost never been on the right side of any other bit of human progress we’ve made since religion got invented as a formal idea; they have encouraged slavery, the subjugation of women, the control of sexuality, the spread and glorification of ignorance, and the torture and outright murder of dissenters, so color me unimpressed when Pope Francis said that mayyyyybe, just mayyyyybe, Catholics should be nicer to gay people and atheists. What’s mind-blowing to me is that Christians don’t notice this huge disparity between advances in reality-land and advances in religious thought.

In the end, I realized that I, myself, had flaws and potential alike, but that when I added my efforts to those of others I could become more than I was. I can no longer imagine standing under the night sky here in my beautiful mountain home, my adopted state, and looking up at all those stars and the Milky Way and thinking this is all here so I’d have somewhere nice to sit down and keep my stuff. I can no longer look at the arc of my own history from the birth of civilization to 2015 and think all this happened just so I could be here. I’m part of something much, much bigger, in both my own tiny corner of the universe with its awful zip code and in my own part in the story of humanity itself. I’m not the end-run reason for any of it, but I’m part of it.

That’s what being human is, and that’s how I moved away from religious narcissism.

We’re going to talk more next time about some of the nuts and bolts of that move, and I really hope you’ll join me.

Posted in Biography, Guides, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments