Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Why Should I Become an Atheist?

PREACHER: I see no advantage in becoming an atheist other than that you can disassociate yourself from religionists who have done evil according to your view of morality and have the feeling of satisfaction that you have grown out of believing in "fairy tales." Does it really matter what you believe, anyway? I can stay a Christian and behave myself according to your morality and everything ends up the same in the end. So, why should I become an atheist?

SKEPTIC: Well, I guess the answer is that you probably shouldn't become an atheist. You've invested your life in a belief system that seems to work for you, so more power to you. I, on the other hand, have become a skeptic after much study and consideration of the claims of Christianity, as well as the historical basis of the religion, and have concluded that it doesn't hold water. It's been my experience that many, if not most, Christians came to believe based on an emotional appeal rather than anything based on real knowledge of the religion. I suspect that the average Christian has a very limited knowledge of the historical roots of the religion and doesn't have much desire to explore those roots.

PREACHER: You may well be right about the average Christian. And, weren't you one of them before you became a skeptic? I would contend, though, that your basis for rejecting Christianity is based on conclusions made from a limited amount of knowledge, the unproven theories of those who share your belief system, and a strong desire to be free from any control that a deity would have on you. Don't you feel a great sense of freedom by not believing? I on the other hand find my freedom in finding out what His plan for my life is. Jesus said "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."

SKEPTIC: Thanks for granting my point about the average Christian not knowing much about the historical roots of Christianity. It seems to me that if you base your whole life around a particular belief system, you should know where it came from. To just go with it because it feels good seems pretty irresponsible to me. And yes, I grew up in a very Christian church and called myself a Christian for many years. But then off I went to university, where, unlike my church, they encouraged me to think and examine and research for myself. A dangerous concept, I know. What I concluded was that religion (of all stripes) and a belief in a personal God was nonsensical and had no basis in reality. For me to believe in God, it has to make actual sense, and there are just too many contradictions and logical fallacies for me to make that leap. By the way, you're right that I feel a sense of freedom by being a non-believer, but only because it means that I don't have to follow silly little rules and don't have to check with a holy book every time I need to make a decision. When you're able to take responsibility for yourself, it really is quite liberating.

PREACHER: I on the other hand I grew up going to church with parents who knew what I would be facing when I entered college, so they made sure that I was prepared. My dad had a PhD. in biology (his major professor was a card carrying atheist) and my mom still loves to debate about ultimate reality issues. I gave my profs in college probably as much trouble as you gave your Sunday school teachers. I'm sure you have stopped checking the Holy Book to make sure that you are acting in a moral way, but I would wager that you are still strongly influenced by it. That is the reason that I think that we can still debate about these issues. I deal with atheists in my community all the time who are basically "a law unto themselves." They always thank me when I don't talk about Christianity in their presence. As for taking responsibility for ones self, there always comes a time when the limits of physical and mental health are met. As a Christian responsible before God I will take responsibility for myself, but never be so arrogant to claim that I will always be able to do that.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Torture Question

SKEPTIC: As we learn shocking new details of the Bush/Cheney torture program every day, I'm curious where you stand on the issue. The GOP, for the most part, seems to justify torture using the age-old reasoning of "the end justifies the means." Crazy lefties like myself, on the other hand, have this wacky idea that torture is never justified and this program has left a dark stain on America's reputation. I also firmly believe that Bush administration officials who were involved in the program need to be held accountable, i.e. prosecuted.

PREACHER: I would agree that torture should never be justified. However, there seems to be some differences of opinion as to what is considered torture. I would think that the typical GOP position is that what was done would not be considered torture. Isn't it also very interesting how some of the countries that have complained about how the Bush administration treated the prisoners at Guantanamo bay, when asked to receive some of these prisoners, have refused to accept them into their countries. America may have had its reputation damaged through this, but are these other countries really willing to practice what they preach?

SKEPTIC: You're right. Many people in the Republican party are trying to claim that the "enhanced interrogation techniques" did not amount to torture. But that claim is patently ridiculous on its face. The US executed Japanese soldiers after World War II for waterboarding our POWs, one of the same techniques employed in the Bush/Cheney torture program. So it's torture when someone does it to us, but it's not torture when we do it someone else?? The recently leaked Red Cross report on the treatment of detainees calls it torture and provides in chilling detail exactly what these techniques involved. The GOP is quickly becoming identified as the pro-torture party and the Dems as the anti-torture party. This is not the way for Republicans to find new voters. Unless they make a clean condemnation of torture and break with the Bush people, they're in for a very long time of wandering in the wilderness.

PREACHER: Did someone say that all is allowable in love and war? Anyway, it is a shame that so many of us can't see things as clear-cut as you do.

SKEPTIC: Actually, all may be fair in love, but not so much in war. That's why we have the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit torture. But does your question mean that you don't have a problem with what the Bush administration did? Seems to me that this would be the perfect situation in which to ask, "What would Jesus do?"

PREACHER: It is interesting that when considering moral issues that you like to appeal to Someone that you consider a mythical figure. Let due process go forward for the prosecution of individuals who have committed torture, not only for the Americans who perform it, but for all of those who commit torture, like the terrorists whom you seem to want to excuse.

SKEPTIC: "The terrorists whom you seem to want to excuse?" That's ridiculous and insulting. Show me one time where I ever came close to "excusing the terrorists." The only ones who may "excuse" the terrorists are Bush and his gang, who by illegally using torture may allow terrorists to eventually go free. But I'm glad that you say we should prosecute those involved in torture. I believe we've arrived at a point we can agree on.

A SKEPTIC POSTSCRIPT: I heard a great analogy today: Saying that torture is okay if we get useful information is like a shoplifter saying "Sure stealing is a crime, but look at all the great stuff I got!"

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

When Does Life Begin?

SKEPTIC: What do you believe happens to the soul of an embryo that is aborted, and is your belief based on the Bible?

PREACHER: Bible passages such as Psalms 139:13~16 and Isaiah 44:2 suggest that God is involved with the pre-birth condition of human beings. Since humans are created in the image of God, and have intrinsic value, the termination of a pregnancy would seem to be interfering in what God is doing. Although the Bible doesn't speak out about what happens to the pre-born in an abortion or a miscarriage, it can be inferred that since men are guilty before God because of their sin that they are responsible for and we can hardly say that an aborted fetus can take responsibility. A lot of evangelical scholars think that aborted fetuses get to go to heaven. I heard my seminary teacher comment that the Bible is silent on this matter for the very reason that if it proclaimed that fetuses go to heaven, the superstitious people in the middle ages would have killed many babies thinking that by doing so the babies would go to heaven. I believe that God intends for all souls to go through this life and when men interfere by abortion, they will be held accountable on judgement day.

SKEPTIC: Okay, I'm a little confused. You say the Bible doesn't have anything to say about what happens to the souls of those who are never born (which is a little surprising to me). Does the Bible specifically say that life begins at conception (the basis for the Christian belief that abortion should be illegal)? You also say that many scholars think that these souls go to Heaven, and that you believe that men will be accountable to God if they interfere in the process with abortion. What you haven't said is what YOU believe happens to these souls. Are you taking a neutral position, saying that you don't know? Are you saying, like Obama, that these sorts of questions are "above your paygrade?"

PREACHER: The Bible passages I quoted above infer that the fetus in the womb has a soul. Coming through the birth canal successfully doesn't suddenly make the fetus a human being; it already is. As for the existence of unborn souls (and that is where conception has not occurred, yet) the Bible doesn't say anything. Some philosopher has made a statement about the pre-existence of souls, but that is not from the Bible.

As far as the Bible specifically saying that life begins at conception, I think you are wondering when the "concepted thing" becomes a human being. Science hasn't determined that, yet. And I believe it would be very difficult to do so. Since we are accountable to God, I believe in playing it safe and saying that conception is the point of becoming a human being. Personally, I believe that the souls of these little ones go to heaven, but I can't be dogmatic about it. My opinion is based on what I know God is like from how He is revealed in the Bible.

SKEPTIC: The Bible verses you mentioned don't seem to really address when life begins per se. On the other hand, Genesis 2:7 seems to clearly say that life begins when a person takes his or her first breath.

"And God made man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul."

In any event, I have two main points. First, it seems ridiculous to me that government should or would outlaw certain medical procedures based on religious ideas about the soul, and second, if you really believe that the souls of aborted fetuses go to Heaven, then you're not doing those souls any favors by not wanting them to be aborted. In other words, if a baby is born and doesn't guess right on the religion question and ends up burning forever in Hell, it seems that he would've been a whole lot better off being aborted. At least then he would have gotten a free pass into Heaven.

PREACHER: Genesis 2:7 is a record of the unique creation of the first man and shouldn't be taken to mean that until one has breathed, he has no soul. Empirical scientific evidence shows that a fetus is a viable living being before it takes its first breath. As long as a large group of citizens believe a "religious" concept, doesn't it behoove the government, if it is a government by the people and for the people, to respect their position? I believe that it is God's will that human souls go through this life. And it isn't an issue of guessing the right question, it is an issue of whether you want to love God or not. When men perform an abortion the fetus becomes their victim. I believe that God cares for those who are victimized. So, He must do something for them.

SKEPTIC: I don't think the government has any business legislating anything that is based on a religious concept. The whole "separation of church and state" thing is a very important element of our democracy. If people don't respect that, then you end up with a theocracy, something that the Taliban has shown us doesn't really work all that well. Also, you talk about a "large group" of people who want to outlaw abortion, but polls have always indicated that the large majority of Americans are against repealing Roe v. Wade.

PREACHER: The polls seem to be very close with the pro-choice position leading. Shouldn't the government pursue a position of compromise on this issue?

SKEPTIC: Well, let's see. We just had 8 years with a pro-life president and a conservative Supreme Court, and yet not a lot changed in regard to the legality of abortion. In fact, we now know that Bush and the GOP were blatantly using the pro-life Christian community for their own political purposes, with no real intention to change anything. So now Americans have overwhelming elected a pro-choice president. What kind of compromise would you expect Obama to pursue, exactly?

PREACHER: I would like to see him pass legistation to protect the right of doctors, who are opposed to abortion for religious reasons, to not be forced to perform it.

SKEPTIC: There are no doctors being forced to perform abortions. The current law, which has been in place for decades, protects doctors from being forced to perform abortions if it goes against their conscience. But Bush snuck in a new regulation right before he was run out of office which broadened those protections. So now it's okay for any health-care worker, as a right of conscience, to refuse to even give out any abortion information at all to someone seeking that information. They can even refuse to pass on a referral. It also allows pharmacists to refuse to sell birth control. Obama and pro-choice groups are in the process of attempting to roll back these additional protections. No one is trying to force doctors to perform abortions.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Is Christianity a Copycat Religion?

SKEPTIC: One of the major reasons I'm not buying the Christian story anymore is that Christianity has been shown to be a copycat religion, having borrowed most of its significant elements (virgin birth, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, etc.) from pagan and mystery religions that were present in the region hundreds, even thousands, of years before Christianity arrived on the scene. It's interesting to me that early church leaders like Tertullian felt it necessary to try to explain this problem by claiming that it was the Devil who employed a "diabolical mimicry" by causing these elements to appear in other religions hundreds of years earlier.

PREACHER: I would like to see how you verify the statement above. I believe that quite the opposite, Judaism and Christianity have been copied by the other religions. Then, there are some elements that might be just common knowledge that date back to antiquity. For instance, many cultures have traditions about a world wide flood, or mention the existence of angels or evil spirits. Possibly modern man is too quick to deny what he hasn't experienced, yet.

SKEPTIC: There is a large body of scholarly work that can verify the long list of striking parallels between Christianity and pre-Christian religions. But the interesting part of your answer, to me, is that you seem to be saying that the story of Noah's Ark and the idea of angels or evil spirits were, indeed, traditional elements of Christianity that came from prior religions. Or am I misunderstading your position?

PREACHER: Just because a religion is considered "pagan", that doesn't mean that that religion is completely deficient in conveying some truth. There are many values that Buddhism (for instance) would share with Christianity. Men are created in the image of God and by nature would have common ways of thinking that are good and right, and common very real experiences concerning the supernatural (both good and evil). The difference in our views ultimately goes back to our view of what really happened in history, especially pre-history. Unless we can travel back in time there is no way to verify, except if there is accurate historical information about those times. Archeologically speaking, I believe the Bible is the best resource we have. If you believe that man evolved from a lower creature and gradually developed to where he is today, it would be presumed that religion as well evolved from animism and polytheism to the higher religions and ultimately culminating in naturalistic humanism. Those of us who remain at the religion level just haven't arrived, yet. If you believe that God originally created man as someone who could have fellowship with Him and then fell into sin (turned away from Him), it would make sense that: 1) God would be interested in getting man's attention in some way (thus the Scriptures) 2) All of mankind would have some rudimentary remembrance of that relationship with God, but having turned away from Him would have produced surrogate ways of reaching out beyond themselves. One of the most obvious themes of the Old Testament is the issue of idolatry. The creator God comes first, then the people turn to idols. The true religion came first and through the passage of time, men who turned away from God distorted the truth. Christianity is "arrogant" enough to claim to be the original true religion ,that is it started from when God created the first man.

SKEPTIC: I agree that different religions sometimes share values. But what we're talking about here is the fact that the life story of Jesus is practically identical to the life stories of a whole host of gods that were worshipped by pagans long before Jesus came onto the scene. This suggests that early Christians plagiarized, or perhaps more kindly, borrowed virtually all the important elements of the Christian narrative. For today's Christians who contend that Jesus represents the "original true religion," this represents a profound dilemma. Was this just an amazing string of coincidences? Not likely.

PREACHER: If anything, Christianity has borrowed extensively from the Jewish Torah (Old Testament). Other religions may have been influenced by the Old Testament as well. That would be especially true during the diaspora of the last 400 years before Christ. As for the "practically identical life stories of gods" that Jesus is supposed to be a copy of, I would like to see the translations of the original documents and real evidence and not the comments of some skeptical scholar who has his own axe to grind. That being the need to rationalize his rejection of the Christian faith. If indeed those alleged sources about Jesus having been an identical copy of a pagan god are reliable enough, then the world of Biblical scholarship should be buzzing about that. Surely Time Magazine or Newsweek and Christianity Today would have had headline articles about it. The Davinci Code even made a big splash, so what have we here? LOL

SKEPTIC: So is it your position that "skeptical scholars" have risked their reputations by making up a bunch of lies to "rationalize their rejection of the Christian faith?" Seems to me that the more accurate observation would be that fundamentalist Christians are really good at ignoring any facts that contradict their fragile belief system. These are not new ideas that have just appeared on the scene. The genesis of these ideas can be traced back to the French Enlightenment.

PREACHER: So, you appeal to the French Enlightenment. That is only several hundred years ago. Is, therefore, everything recorded before the "enlightenment" took place unreliable, especially if it has the label of Christianity on it? It is interesting that since the "enlightenment" the Christian faith has spread throughout the whole world. It's demise has been rather limited to the places where this "enlightenment" occurred. We now send missionaries to those countries and some of the folks there have responded to the Gospel anew, after they see that it doesn't have to be associated with the political power the Catholic church wielded in the past.
Back to the real issue in this post though: Christ is referred to as the Hope of the nations. Even pagan religions express the need that people have for a relationship with their creator. That the pagan gods seem similar to Jesus Christ, just expresses that the majority of men are searching for some sort of salvation. Those pagan religions were just a step that God (He created everything including the people with all the religious viewpoints) used to prepare them for the real Savior. That could be one reason why the Gospel spread so fast in the early centuries.

SKEPTIC: The pagan religions were "just a step that God used to prepare them for the real savior?" So God let people worship all those false saviors for hundreds of years as a kind of placeholder until the real thing happened to come along? Why would God need any steps to prepare people for the "real" savior? People weren't ready for the real thing? It was just too big and scary? Sorry, I don't get it. Seems to me that God would come up with a better plan than that. I mean, c'mon. He's God.
PREACHER: Sounds to me like you would want to give God some advice on how He could have better reached out to us created beings.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Rush Limbaugh and the Decline of Conservatism

SKEPTIC: What's your opinion of Rush Limbaugh? Do you agree with him when he says that he "wants Obama to fail?"

PREACHER: I don't wish for Obama to fail, but I don't think we need socialism as the cure-all for our economic woes either. Limbaugh really thinks that Obama wants to turn the USA into a socialist republic. I'm not so sure, but if he tries to get the government to solve everything there could be a direction in that way.

SKEPTIC: You know, I'm pretty sure that one of the Ten Commandments says "Thou Shalt Not Lie," so how can you support a man like Limbaugh who lies almost every time he opens his mouth? As long as the GOP refuses to disassociate itself from the loonies and the hatemongers (Limbaugh, Coulter, Hannity, O'Reilly, et al) they're going to continue to sink into the mire. The USA has taken a giant step to the left, and those who continue to embrace the ideology that created the mess we're in now will become more and more irrelevant. There are moderate Republicans out there, but their voices are being drowned out by the far right.

PREACHER: So you would find yourself more in line then with and ACORN. O'Reilly calls them loonies, too. Technically speaking, I can say that you just lied in the statement above because you misquoted the ninth commandment. The correct words are, "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor."(NIV) Rush might be able to accuse you of breaking that commandment with your hyperbolic statement about his alleged dishonesty. Those on the extreme right and left are calling each other liars and loonies. And, thus political polarization continues in its momentum. You seem to think the conservatives are irrelevant to most people. I'm not so sure. In a few more years, the wind of public opinion may change again. Then, as a believer in Biblical prophesy, I envision a day when both sides will be totally irrelevant (perhaps some footnotes in an unabridged history book like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus' day).

SKEPTIC: I don't say that conservatives are irrelevant to most people, but I do say that they are edging closer and closer to irrelevancy as a political movement with any credibility. The election was a giant repudiation of the conservative movement. It was the American people saying, "Hey, you had your chance and you screwed it up big time, so we're gonna try something else." So now they find themselves reduced to sitting on the sidelines, seemingly unable to do anything but throw spitballs at Obama and promote ridiculous conspiracy theories. And by the way, Bill O'Reilly calling anybody a loony is classic case of the the pot calling the kettle black.

PREACHER: Sounds like to me like there is a lot of name calling going on. Unfortunately, name calling reveals more about the character of the person who does the name calling than anything else. Not all, but much of what Rush says makes sense to me. I would like to congratulate Mr. Obama in his efforts to improve relations with Europe and the Muslim world. It is unfortunate that in the process relations with the nation of Israel may suffer. But, what can I expect? Biblical prophesy has to be fulfilled. And, the present world leaders are doing a very good job of it.

SKEPTIC: There's something much more dangerous than name-calling going on with today's right-wing anti-Obama rhetoric. Nut cases like Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachman, and yes, Rush Limbaugh, are fueling conspiracy theories and calling for people to, basically, rise up and overthrow the government. And people who listen to them are responding to these calls by killing their fellow Americans. It's despicable. It's gotten so bad that even Rush's Republican listeners are turning on him.

PREACHER: I see some craziness on both sides of the spectrum, the individuals written about as well as the tone of the articles linked to above. In the light of eternity I don't consider either side very significant.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Does Satan Exist?

(ABC Nightline recently conducted a 4-person debate called "Does Satan Exist?" You can watch the entire debate here.)

SKEPTIC: Interesting debate. Although her organization does have a catchy name, I thought the woman from "Hookers for Jesus" was totally nuts.

PREACHER: The lady may be nuts, but her faith worked for her, didn't it? My advice is don't knock faith in God's power over Satan when you are too afraid to try it out for yourself.

SKEPTIC: Well, I certainly don't knock her faith. Whatever works for her is great. And I'm not "afraid to try it out" for myself. In fact, I went the God route for a long time, but came to discover that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. But to the question at hand - Does Satan Exist? - I would have to say that Yes, he does exist, and his real name is Dick Cheney. I mean, what else could explain this man's evil behavior?

PREACHER: Couldn't you have found a better candidate for Satan than Dick Cheney. He could maybe stand in for one of his lackeys, but not more than that.

SKEPTIC: You might be right. Rush Limbaugh is a more likely candidate for the job. But to be serious for a moment...Yes, Satan does exist, but only in the minds of those who choose to invest their belief in him. For some people, he becomes a very useful excuse for when things go wrong in life. It allows them to escape taking the responsibility themselves. That's why Annie, the "Hookers for Jesus" representative, who spent a good chunk of her life in the sex trade, can feel better about herself by believing that it was Satan who made her sleep with all those men for money. It was Satan who got her hooked on drugs, and it was demons who raped her. This woman obviously has had some traumatic experiences in her life, and if becoming "born again" helps her feel better about herself, that's great. But I didn't see her take any responsibility for her actions. I thought Deepak Chopra made a salient point when he observed that "healthy people don't need Satan."

PREACHER: Satan's existence isn't determined on whether a human being needs him or not. Biblically speaking, he exists objectively, from the beginning to the end. Although people can be under his influence to the point of not being able to control themselves, nowhere in the Bible suggests that we can blame Satan for our sin. I know that he is a great deceiver. One of his favorite ploys is to convince us that he doesn't exist. If that doesn't work then he tempts us to think that he and his demons are in everything and everywhere (like the former preacher in the video used to be before he saw the "light"). I suppose it boosts you ego to claim that you are able to take responsibility for all your actions.

SKEPTIC: I'm not sure how my ego got into the conversation, but what's wrong with taking responsibility for your actions instead of using Satan as a scapegoat?

PREACHER: Actually it has a lot to do with your ego. Your ego is the real reason you aren't able to accept Jesus Christ as Lord. Satan is the great tempter and deceiver. He cannot force us to do anything, but he is very good at deceiving us into believing and doing what he wants. One way he uses that is very effective is appealing to our ego. That is what he did with Adam and Eve, but he tried it and failed with Jesus. When we follow Satan's deception, then we become his lackeys. Certainly some people use Satan as a scapegoat, but admitting the existence of Satan has nothing to do with trying to shirk your responsibility to do what is right. In some cases like the lady in the debate, one's own bad decisions lead into a quagmire of bondage to demonic forces. When she realized she was in a helpless situation, she called out to Jesus and experienced the power of His grace. After you experience that kind of transformation, the arguments of skeptics sound just ignorant.

SKEPTIC: It's not my ego telling me that religion has no real foundation for belief. It's my brain cells doing the talking. They're stubborn little devils (pardon the pun), and they just won't allow me to base my whole life on ancient myths and superstitions. Sorry. And by the way, I don't believe that Annie was "in a quagmire of bondage to demonic forces." I think she just had a good, old-fashioned nervous breakdown and went a little nuts. It happens to the best of us, I suppose. If her belief in a 2000-year-old man who claimed to be God helps her recover from her mental illness, then more power to her.

But I understand why people are into the whole Satan thing. Every story needs to have conflict. Every superhero needs a bad guy to make the good guy look, well, good. Batman has his Joker, Superman has Lex Luther, and God has Satan.

Preacher: May I be so bold as to ask if you have the supernatural ability to verify that the supernatural never occurs?