Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Catholic Hell

Where is the Hell and what can we expect when we get there? What does the catholic church teach us about the hell? Here are your answers, courtesy, the Eternal Word Television Network.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Adam, Eve, the Original Sin and the Catholic Church

If you (like me) move in liberal Catholic circles, you have quite possibly heard the refrain that the Genesis when properly understood, is not in conflict with science. The creation myth that we see in the chapter of Genesis, for instance, is to be understood as a myth, an allegory - a story told to teach us that God created us. It is only people who misunderstand the real purpose who interpret it literally. The catholic church's teaching is quite consistent with evolution and science.

At least, that is the claim. Let's see how the claim stands up to scrutiny.

The story of course is that God created Adam and Eve the man and woman on this earth. All of us are decedents of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve disobeyed God's command and were banished from the Garden of Eden. This was the "original sin" which the Catholic Church teaches us, is passed on to all of us at birth.

St. Paul (writing around 50 AD, probably) considers Adam, the "First Adam" and Christ to be the "Last Adam". He has no issues with taking literally, the story of the first parents and the original sin. Here is what he says for instance in Romans 5:12-14,
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned. To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.
The Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus in his work, "Antiquities of the Jews" (93 or 94 AD) recounts the history of the Jewish people up to the Jewish War. He starts with Adam and Eve and recounts the history as in the Hebrew Bible. Josephus was no Christian but he seems to have taken the Adam and Eve story quite literally.

The gospel of Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam himself (Luke 3:23-38).

The pastoral epistles of Timothy and Titus are second century works claiming to have been written by Paul the apostle. 1 Timothy has this misogynistic passage which talks about a literal Adam and Eve.
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. -1 Timothy 2:11-15
Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430) in "The Literal Meaning of Genesis" and his other works makes it clear that the creation account can not be taken completely literally. For God to say "let there be light" at the beginning of creation makes no sense, for instance. While Augustine could look for allegorical meanings, he clearly inferred a literal Adam and Eve.

The Council of Trent (fifth session, 1545–47) in its decree concerning the Original Sin, insisted on a literal Adam and the original sin. Here is a sample.
If any one does not confess that the first man, Adam, when he had transgressed the commandment of God in Paradise, immediately lost the holiness and justice wherein he had been constituted; and that he incurred, through the offence of that prevarication, the wrath and indignation of God, and consequently death, with which God had previously threatened him, and, together with death, captivity under his power who thenceforth had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil, and that the entire Adam, through that offence of prevarication, was changed, in body and soul, for the worse; let him be anathema.
The Council of Trent's decree on justification which is considered nothing less than an infallible extraordinary conciliar decree has this to say:
The holy council declares first, that for a correct and clear understanding of the doctrine of justification, it is necessary that each one recognize and confess that since all men had lost innocence in the prevarication of Adam, having become unclean, and, as the Apostle says, by nature children of wrath, as has been set forth in the decree on original sin, they were so far the servants of sin and under the power of the devil and of death, that not only the Gentiles by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very letter of the law of Moses, were able to be liberated or to rise therefrom, though free will, weakened as it was in its powers and downward bent, was by no means extinguished in them.
At the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), Pope Pius IX on his way to declaring  papal infallibility, had this to say.
I embrace and accept the whole and every part of what was defined and declared by the holy Council of Trent concerning original sin and justification.
The encyclical "Humani Generis" of Pope Pius XII (1950):
For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.
Yet, Pope John Paul II in his "Message To The Pontifical Academy Of Sciences: On Evolution" (1996) said,
In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points.
Was the pope reading a different encyclical, one wonders. The Pope, in this message also goes on to say:
Pius XII underlined the essential point: if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God. (Humani Generis)
As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.
This assertion, rather than showing Catholic theology to be consistent with the theory of evolution instead suggests that they are rather inconsistent.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (as it reads today) states:
The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him, in a state that would be surpassed only by the glory of the new creation in Christ.
The Church, interpreting the symbolism of biblical language in an authentic way, in the light of the New Testament and Tradition, teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original "state of holiness and justice". This grace of original holiness was "to share in. . .divine life".
The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the "reverse side" of the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of all men, that all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Christ. The Church, which has the mind of Christ, knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.
While Catholics may not take all of the Bible to be literally true, while they have since the beginning of their religion seen allegory in some of the passages, the orthodox view has been to take Adam and Eve to be literally the first humans on this earth. To say otherwise is a massive rewrite of history.

The Catholic romance with the theory of evolution is a very recent phenomenon. And as we see in what the Popes in the last century have said about it, this romance has been a very bumpy one.

The theory of evolution tells us that humans evolved from more primitive primates such as the homo erectus over a period of time. There is no single point at which homo erectus turned into homo sapiens. There is no single parent, no single point to grow a soul and no single point at which the original sin could be committed. Without the original sin, the theology behind the sacrifice of Christ is called into question. Catholic theology is, most certainly in conflict with the theory of evolution.

More importantly, Catholic theology over the centuries, as we have seen, considered Adam and Eve to be the literal first humans as revealed by the Bible. To say otherwise is simply, ignorance of Catholic history!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Who am I to judge?

Pope Francis set off a storm a few days ago. Addressing journalists aboard a flight from Rio de Janeiro on July 28, the Pope had some kind words for the gay people. He declared, “Who am I to judge them?

Progressive Catholics who are already awestruck by this Pontiff were left gasping for breath. Finally, we see some acceptance of the gay community!

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Let's take a look at what the Pope actually said.
When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem ... they're our brothers.
The Church's teaching, in the recent past at least, has been that homosexuality is not a sin. Homosexual sex, however, is indeed a sin. Any sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman are sinful as well. Within a marriage, any sexual activity that excludes procreation is also sinful. In plain terms, using condoms is sinful.

Nothing has changed here. NOTHING. Pope Francis is merely deferring to his boss in heaven (a.k.a God) to do the judging. The Church he heads just tells us what the rules are. And make no mistake, the rules have not changed!

Pope Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI had a harsher way of stating things. Back in 1986, as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he co-wrote that even the homosexual inclination should be seen as an objective disorder. Here is what he wrote:
Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.
The Pope has not disavowed this pronouncement. But he has promised not to judge!

The Pope who does not judge was not too scared to judge back in 2010. The Pope (Cardinal Bergoglio, then) spoke forcefully against same-sex marriage and adoption of children by same sex couples in Argentina. Here is what he said:
“Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a ‘move’ of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
While the Pope may have declined to judge, history may not be so merciful!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Ten Commandments, all twenty of them!

The Ten Commandments that God gave Moses and the Israelites are something akin to the crown jewels of Judaism and Christianity. All Christian kids are taught these commandments at Sunday school. I know I was!

The story of the commandments is very interesting. The God of Israel, Yahweh, rescues the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and leads them them to their promised land - the land of Canaan.

En route, on Mount Sinai, Moses receives the Ten Commandments directly from God. On returning with the commandments, Moses finds the Israelites disobedient and indulging in idolatry. Angry, Moses breaks the tablets on which the commandments were written by God.

God once more gives the commandments to Moses. Here is where the story gets tricky. The second set of commandments are completely different and rarely repeated. We'll see why shortly.

The first set is the one that is cited all the time. Here they are, verbatim (from the New International Version of the Bible). I have marked in red, the important lines. But the interesting ones are in the second set below.

First Set Exodus 20:1-17 (NIV)
And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Now, we fast forward fourteen chapters for the second set - Exodus 34:10-28 (NIV). The interesting ones are highlighted.
Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.
Do not make any idols.
Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt.
The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons.
No one is to appear before me empty-handed.
Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.
Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord, the God of Israel. I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the Lord your God.
Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Festival remain until morning.
Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.
Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.
Yeah, if anyone asks you, the tenth commandment is this: “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.

Now you know why Christians do not mention this second set. God sure is very mysterious in his ways! :)

Note: The first set is repeated with minor changes in Deuteronomy 5.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Debates and Lectures page

Richard Carrier


Hector Avalos

Bart Ehrman

Robert M. Price

Christopher Hitchens


Sam Harris

Lawrence Krauss

Monday, June 24, 2013

Was Jesus a "true Christian"?

Flash news, "Due to our common roots, a true Christian cannot be anti-Semitic!". So sayeth Pope Francis. The Church also "firmly condemns hatred, persecution and all manifestations of anti-Semitism."

So, what do we do with a couple of millennia of anti-semitism by the holy church? More importantly, what about the anti-semitic passages in the Bible? For instance, Jesus (according to the Gospel of John) calls Jews, children of the devil.
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” -John 8:42-47 (NIV)
[Click on this link for the entire chapter.]

Was John's Jesus an anti-Semite? If so, Pope Francis' boss in heaven may not be a "true Christian" after all!

Note 1: Before you ask, yes, the Pope's attempt to reach out to the Jews and to condemn anti-Semitism is to be applauded. But, the Pope also has to deal with his Church's past, not ignore it.

Note 2: Here is a catholic counter argument. Read it if you don't mind getting a headache!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Interview with Frank Zindler

The Case Against Bart Ehrman's Historical Jesus

Interview with Frank Zindler, editor and contributor of "Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth"

Skip to 15m:20secs for the interview.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Activist Atheist

For a while now, I have been posting blasphemous ideas on my Facebook timeline, posts pointing out that the Bible has passages that are bizarre and has God promoting genocide. For instance this one:


Some use humor to point out the problems with Christianity or religion in general. For instance, this one:


I expected some push back and hoped for some dialog. I did get a bit of both.

But after much thought, I have decided that I should move these messages out of my personal Facebook page. No point or no good reason to present these ideas to folks who don't really give a hoot about it. But since I do, I don't want to give it up completely either.

Enter, "The Activist Atheist"! It is a new Facebook page that I and a few like minded folks are launching.

You are welcome to "like", hang out, and if interested start a dialog with us!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Divine Loopholes: 2. Abortion

The Roman Catholic Church's stand on abortion is simple. It does not permit it. [1] [2] This is simple enough and works in most cases.

Mother's life in danger

However, what if the life of the mother is also in danger? Is abortion permitted then? In a lay person's terms, the church permits abortion only if the life of the mother is in danger. The reality is that the rules are a bit more nuanced.

If the mother's life is in danger and if a treatment for the ailment indirectly results in an abortion (or miscarriage), then it is called an indirect abortion. And this is permitted. The principle of double effect is in play here. [3]

If the treatment itself is aborting the fetus, then it is a direct abortion. Direct abortions are not permitted. Such abortions are morally evil, in the church's eyes, even when such an abortion could potentially save the mother's life!

Now, if such is the case when the life of the mother is in danger, then abortion in cases of rape, incest etc. are always morally evil. The Church's penalty of abortion is excommunication. [4]

The Indirect Abortion Loophole

Ectopic pregnancy is one where the fetus implants itself outside the uterus - often inside the Fallopian tube. The treatment for this condition is either medically or surgically aborting and removing the fetus. That would, in the church's eyes be evil unless, the Fallopian tube itself is removed as a treatment for the mother. Such a removal would result in the indirect removal of the fetus which then dies.

This tap dance around the rules provides a possible solution which could save the mother's life!

In the case of a regular pregnancy, but one where the mother has uterine cancer as well, the uterus might be surgically removed and the baby aborted as a result. The abortion is indirect and hence acceptable. [3]

The Soul

The church's stand has two aspects. One is the morality (or the lack thereof) of killing a fetus. The other is that, the church these days teaches that a fetus gets a soul (ensoulment) right at the time of conception. This makes the fetus a human being in the eyes of the church. And since killing a human being is a grave moral sin, so is abortion.

History

The church's stand on ensoulment and abortion has an interesting history. The church like to pretend that its teachings have always been consistent and constant since the foundation of the religion. Reality though, is never that neat, is it?

While the church has in general disapproved of abortion and considered it a sin, its thought on when exactly the ensoulment happened has varied. St. Augustine (354 - 430 AD) in "On Exodus" wrote that ensoulment happened much after conception. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) taught that ensoulment happened 40 to 80 days after conception for boys and girls respec.

Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) designated quickening as the time of ensoulment. Quickening is when the mother can feel the movement of the fetus and this is around 15 - 17 weeks.

In 1588, Pope Sixtus V in his Bull Effraenatam made abortion at any stage, an excommunicable offence and punishable as a murder. A mere three years later, in 1591, Pope Gregory XIV reverted the official stand back to delayed ensoulment.

It was only in 1869 that Pope Pius IX officially eliminated the catholic distinction between an animated and a non-animated foetus. Abortion at any stage was again an excommunicable offence! [5] [6] [7]

Pope Leo XIII in a couple of decrees in 1884 and 1886 made it explicitly clear that an abortion even when performed to save a mother's life was morally wrong.

Tricky cases

Determining if a particular case would meet the loophole requirements is tricky. Sister of Mercy Margaret McBride who was on the Phoenix Catholic hospital's ethics committee found this out the hard way. In 2008, she found herself excommunicated for her role in allowing an abortion to take place at the hospital. Fortunately, for rape victims, the rule is simple. [8]

For performing an abortion a nine year old child who had been impregnated by her raping step-father, the Archibishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho of Recife, Brazil excommunicated her mother and the doctors who performed the procedure. [9] [10]

Well, sometimes, the church has to do what God tells it to do, right?


For more Divine Loopholes, see my earlier post: Natural Family Planning and IVF.

References

[1] Vatican.va, SACRED CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH: Declaration on Procured Abortion  (1974)

[2] Pastoral Constitution On The Church In The Modern World, Gaudium et spesPromulgated By His Holiness, Pope Paul VI. (1965)

Therefore from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.

The good effects of our acts are then directly intended, and the regretted evil consequences are reluctantly permitted to follow because we cannot avoid them. The evil thus permitted is said to be indirectly intended. It is not imputed to us provided four conditions are verified, namely:
  • That we do not wish the evil effects, but make all reasonable efforts to avoid them;
  • That the immediate effect be good in itself;
  • That the evil is not made a means to obtain the good effect; for this would be to do evil that good might come of it — a procedure never allowed;
  • That the good effect be as important at least as the evil effect.
[4] National Catholic Reporter, "Under Vatican ruling, abortion triggers automatic excommunication", John L. Allen Jr, (2003)

[5] ReligiousTolerance.org, Roman Catholicism and abortion access: Overview: Evolution of Roman Catholic positions on abortion.

[6] Rational Wiki, Papal infallibility

[7] wiki.answers.com, Did the Catholic Church always unequivocally oppose abortion?

[8] NCROnline.org, "Nun excommunicated for allowing abortion", (2010).

[9] Time.com, "Nine-Year-Old's Abortion Outrages Brazil's Catholic Church", (2009).

[10] BBC.co.uk, "Vatican backs abortion row bishop", (2009).

Friday, May 31, 2013

Salvation: What does it take?

Last week, the Pope seemed to suggest that even atheists have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. The Vatican promptly clarified that the Pope's comments were being misunderstood. While "No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin", "people who aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her”."

One is tempted to clarify to the Holy See that atheists do not really care for an imaginary heaven or eternal damnation in an imaginary hell or judgement by an imaginary god!

Let's set that aside for a bit and take a look at the christian theology of salvation. It is quite interesting and by gawd, extremely convoluted.

If the Pope and the Vatican confused you, why don't we just look at what Jesus himself had to "say" about it in the book he "inspired"? I mean, Jesus came to the earth for our salvation, right? Wouldn't he have told us exactly what is needed to avoid eternal damnation? I mean, in addition to dying and rising, he'd have told everyone around him exactly what to do, right? Right?

So, what does it take? What do Jesus and his apostles say about it?

1. Belief and Baptism
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. -Mark 16:16 
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. -John 3:16

2. Righteousness
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. -Matthew 16:27
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. -Matthew 5:10 
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. -Matthew 7:19
The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. -Luke 3:9

3. Keeping the Commandments (law)
If you want to enter life, keep the commandments. -Matthew 19:17

4. Wealth
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” -Matthew 19:23-24

5. Mercy
he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, -Titus 3:5

6. Faith (Belief), not works of the law
know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. -Galatians 2:16
If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. -Romans 10:9

Harmonization

Not very clear, are they now? Well, I know what we can do? If we do all six of the above, then perhaps we have the right answer? Right?

Perhaps, a person who believes, does good works, is baptized, keeps the commandments and gives up all wealth should presumably expect to go to heaven! Right?


Actually, no. While it does look superficially straightforward, Jesus seems to have an uncanny knack for contradicting himself! Jesus flat out says that a wealthy man cannot go to heaven. He also says that baptized belivers shall be saved. What about wealthy person who believes and is baptized? Is the Pope going to be saved? How about say, Mel Gibson?

What about a Hindu who does good deeds and is poor? Jesus is very clear in Matthew 16:27, when he says such a person will be saved. He is also quite clear in Mark 16:16 that that person will be damned.

Then there is apostle Paul who in his epistles contradicts Jesus (from Matthew 19:17) and says that keeping the commandments do not count. Pseudo-Paul in Titus 3:5 says salvation is just a result of God's mercy and has nothing to do with good works.

Let's put all this together.

        Salvation       Damnation       What matters not?       
1 Belief + Baptism No Belief (contra 2)  - 
2 Righteousness (contra 1, 4) Bad fruits  - 
3 Keeping the commandments (law)  -   - 
4 Poverty? Wealth-
5 It's all God's Mercy (contra 1, 2, 3, 4, 6)    - Righteousness (contra 2)
6 Faith in Jesus  -Keeping the law (contra 3)

Wait, there is more from where that came from!

7. Luck
But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. -2 Thessalonians 2:13

8. Can the meek, step forward please?
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5

9. Spouse
For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. -1 Corinthians 7:14

10. Calling on the unmarried
But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, -Luke 20:35

11. Survivors
You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. -Matthew 10:22

12. Obey, fear and tremble
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, -Philippians 2:12

So saith the omniscient god's book!

No wonder the Pope and the Vatican sound confusing. Their big boss in heaven was not very clear about what exactly he wanted from us!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Jesus died for the atheists too!

Jesus died for everyone, not just the Catholics, says the Pope! He redeemed even the bloody atheists!

He says:
"The Lord has redeemed us all with the blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone," he said. Some may ask, "'Father, even the atheists?' Them, too. Everyone."
Well, who'd have thought?!

But consider what the gospel has to say about this, through the words of John the baptist.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them." -John 3:36
It seems the Pope gets to ignore the gospel of John when he quotes the gospel Mark (on which he bases his homily)! He's the POPE for Christ's sake!

It would also be pertinent to note that the Catholic Church has been teaching for centuries that only catholics can go to heaven. In Unam Sanctam, the Papal Bull issued by Pope Boniface VIII in 1302 says,
"Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff."
This stance was seen as too outdated and the second Vatican council did a near about face. As the "Assessment of this Council", written to spell out the council's conclusions in terms that the lay public could understand says,
"The non-Christian may not be blamed for his ignorance of Christ and his Church; salvation is open to him also, if he seeks God sincerely and if he follows the commands of his conscience, for through this means the Holy Ghost acts upon all men; this divine action is not confined within the limited boundaries of the visible Church."
If you can attribute an atheist's non-belief to ignorance and if the said atheist is somehow said to be seeking God, then yes, salvation is possible. If you are willing to go through mental gymnastics, then yes indeed, anything is possible!

Make no mistake, the Pope's message of tolerance is to be welcomed, of course. The idea of inclusiveness is also quite welcome too! The world could certainly do with more tolerance and less bigotry!

What is funny however is the Christian insistence on cherry picking and looking at verses atomically. One understands why, of course. Take the Bible as a whole and you get a messy goo of inconsistencies and God begins to look like he has multiple personality disorder.

Update:

Not so fast atheists, says the Vatican.
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.
At the same time, Rosica writes, “every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin.”
Perhaps, the Pope was referring to atheists who enter and remain in the Church! Ha!

So, here is the new Rock-Paper-Scissors game in town: Pope-Jesus-Vatican!

The Pope overrides the Bible's message (John 3:36)
The Bible guides the Vatican
The Vatican "clarifies" the Pope's statement
Pope-Bible-Vatican!

Update 2:

While the pope seems to have said that atheists have been redeemed by Christ's blood, he need not have meant that atheists who do good will go to heaven.

Here is how it could possibly be interpreted: Christ redeemed us all (from the original sin or all sins). That does not necessarily imply that we, atheists get to go to heaven! Well, no one says theology is easy!

Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly claimed that John 3:36 were the words of Jesus. It is has been updated to correctly note that those are the words of John the baptist.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The inerrant word of God?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning - the first day. -Genesis 1:1-5 (NIV)

Most religions have holy books of one form or the other. In Hinduism, there are Vedas which contain "eternal truths". Then there are the Itihasas or epics like Ramayana and Mahabharatha. The Mahabharatha contains the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Kirshna's advice to Arjuna.

Islam has the Quran, Sunnah and Hadith. The Quran was supposedly revealed by the angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammed and is considered to be literally the word of Allah or God.

The primary scripture of Judaism is the Torah which includes the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The Christians know the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament. The canon of the Hebrew Bible is called the Tanakh. The Tanakh comprises of the collections of Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim. Then there are the Talmuds which are attempts by the Rabbis to elucidate the Torah. The Tosefta is another competing collection of halakhoth or rules.

Christianity has the Holy Bible which includes the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible or the Jewish Scripture. The New Testament includes the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, a collection of Epistles and the book of Revelation of John.

A survey by The Pew Research Center in 2008 found that 33% of Americans considered scripture to be word of God, literally word for word. Another 30% considered it to be also word of God, though not word for word. 28% considered it to be book by mere mortals. [1]

In this post, let me talk primarily about the Christian scripture. Let's start with the Old Testament.

Young Earth Theory


The first book of the Old Testament is the book of Genesis. Tradition credits Moses with having written this book. It describes the origin of this universe. God created this world in six days. On the seventh day, he rested. The first humans created were Adam and Eve.[2] This story is the source of the Young Earth Theory, the theory that God created this universe in the recent past. Back in the seventeenth century, using the genealogy and the ages of our ancestors mentioned in the Bible, Bishop James Ussher famously dated the first day of creation to Sunday 23 October 4004 BC.[3] Depending on who you ask, the calculations vary a bit, but sometime between 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, this act of creation is supposed to have happened.

The young earth theory is not a fringe theory or without supporters. A 2010 Gallup poll found that 4 out of 10 Americans believe this.[4] According to the published results, this percentage has remained in the forties for the past thirty years. That is a lot of support! However, this view is quite incompatible with what science has found. Here is what science tells us.
  • The universe originated about 14 billion years ago with a big bang. [5]
  • The planet Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.
  • Life first appeared on this planet about one billion years ago.
  • Life on earth evolved from primitive single celled organisms to complex animals and plants.
  • Human beings and apes (and every other plant and animal on this earth, for that matter) evolved from common ancestors.
  • The fossil record that we have illustrates evolutionary change over the past millions of years.

Young earth theory contradicts sciences like biology (the theory of evolution and palaeontology), astronomy, geology, archeology, physics etc [6]
.

The Global Flood


The story of creation in the Bible is followed by the story of the Flood. A giant flood covered the entire earth washing away as a punishment, most of its inhabitants. The only survivors were Noah and his family of eight and a pair of all the animals Noah took with him in his arc. [7]

There are problems here as well. To drown and cover all of the earth in forty days, we'd need a rain coming down by the buckets – actually a bit more than that. Mt. Everest is approximately 5.5 miles (29,029 feet) above sea level and earth's surface is approximately 200 million square miles. To cover that, the great flood would have to produce about 1.1 billion cubic miles of water and in just about 40 days or 289 cubic miles of water per second. According to the US Geological Survey, the earth has 332.5 million cubic miles of water. This includes all of the oceans (96.5%), ice caps, glaciers, fresh water, ground water and atmospheric water (0.001%). [8]

A simpler calculation is that the water level has to rise about (29029 ft÷40 days) 726 feet per day for forty days to cover Mt. Everest. Per the story, not all the water came from the rain. Some of it came from inside the earth as well. [9] The water on earth simply cannot account for covering all of Mt. Ararat, let alone Mt. Everest. [10]

Had there been a massive flood of this proportion, the geological record should show that the surface of the continents were washed off. That is not what we see. The geological record does not show any trace of a world wide flood.

The Egyptian and Chinese dynasties which existed during the time of the supposed flood show no signs of having drowned. They seem to have survived just fine.

Noah's arc should have been quite humongous to contain all the different species of animals. The plants and the marine animals that would have died with all the fresh water that poured in are left unaccounted for as well. It is worth repeating; that is also a lot of water with no source. The problem of a loving yet ruthless God also rears its ugly head.

The only rational conclusion to be made is that the great flood did not happen. It is just a myth. [11] To believe otherwise would be to believe in spite of a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

The Exodus


After the story of the flood, the stories of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob follow. The book of Exodus traces journey of the Israelites, lead by Moses in their exodus from Egypt and slavery to their promised land of Canaan. After decimating the inhabitants of Canaan, the Israelites led by Joshua settle down to live their lives in the land flowing with milk and honey.

Unfortunately, there are problems here as well. There was a time when the Bible was considered to be historically accurate. Many an archaeologist has tried to find evidence for the Patriarchs and Moses. At this time however, the conclusion is that an exodus as described in the Torah probably never happened. There is no evidence to be found of a large crowd wandering the desert for forty years. The Egyptians never left a record for such an exodus of slaves. We have little or no evidence for the Patriarchs either. [12]

Inerrancy


The creation in seven days is something that is best considered a creation myth, something the ancient people came up with. And the rest is also fanciful mythology. This however creates a problem in considering the Bible as the inerrant word of God.

There are Christian apologists who argue that the days in the creation accounts do not translate to literal days or 24 hour periods. They could just refer to a long time interval, even billions of years and the story would still work. Noah's flood need not have referred to a worldwide flood but just a regional one. The problem with this line of argument is that we have no reason at all to think that the seven days originally meant anything other than seven days. We also have about three millennia of teaching of creation in seven days. The order of creation does not make any sense (day and night before creating the Sun, for instance).

The people who wrote these accounts had no clue about a universe that evolved over billions of years. Not a clue. Trying to read that into the text is imposing modern science on to old mythical tales.

Given that evolution of life on earth and age of the universe are mainstream theories of science with a mountain of evidence, many Christians have moved to embrace these and meld them with religion.

Unlike its centuries long resistance to the Heliocentric theory, the Roman Catholic Church was quick to jump on to the Big Bang Theory bandwagon and pronounced it to be in accordance with the Bible. [13]

Many scientifically inclined Christians accept that much of the Old Testament is not historically accurate. Perhaps God only meant these to be allegorical. Perhaps the ancient folks could not have handled a complex theory of evolution and needed allegory!

The New Testament


But, the New Testament on the other hand, or so many say, is quite accurate. Unfortunately for the inerrantists (those that consider the Bible to be error free), there are many contradictions between the New Testament accounts as well as historical issues.

The Gospel of Matthew has Jesus born during the reign of Herod the Great which implies that it was before 4 BC; The Gospel of Luke places it during the governorship of Quirinius which puts it after 6 AD. [14]

Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus eat the passover meal on first day of the Passover and crucified the next day. (cf. Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7). John on the other hand portrays Jesus as a perfect pascal offering and has Jesus dying on the day of the preparation of the Passover. (cf. John 19:14).

Matthew and Luke both have Jesus resurrecting after his crucifixion but have the details all different – the angels at the empty tomb, where Jesus and the disciples headed to, who saw the resurrected Jesus and so on. We have many many more inconsistencies. Who was Jesus' father Joseph's father? (cf. Matthew 1:16, Luke 3:23) What was Jesus' last words? (cf. Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34, Luke 23:46, John 19:30). How did Judas the betrayer die? (cf, Matthew 27:5, Acts 1:18). What was Jesus' and his parents' home town? Bethlehem? (cf. Matthew 1:18-2:2) Nazareth? (cf. Luke 2:4) or Capharnaum? (cf. Mark 2:1, Matthew 9:1). How many times did the cock crow?

I have written more about it here and here. The New Testament is clearly not innerrant. What what God thinking, inspiring these Gospel writers to write such varying accounts? Did God not care about the details? How do we go about deciphering God's intentions with all these confusing details?

Religion often has the holy scripture as its foundation. Scripture is how we get to know how and why God created us and how God wants us to live (scripture and revelation, actually). But once we realize that scripture is errant and man-made, we are on the road to leaving our religion behind.

References


[3] James Ussher, "The Annals of the World" (1658)
[5] Stephen Hawking, "A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes", Bantam Books (1988).
[9] Genesis 7:11,12
"In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month - on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights".
[10] RationalWiki.org, Noah's Ark
[11] BibleInterp.com, "Forget about Noah's Ark; There Was No Worldwide Flood", Robert R. Cargill, (2010)
[12] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, "The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts", Touchstone (2002).

[13] The proofs for the existence of god in the light of modern natural science: Address of Pope Pius XII to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, November 22, 1951.
"In fact, it would seem that present-day science, with one sweeping step back across millions of centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to that primordial "Fiat lux" uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chemical elements split and formed into millions of galaxies."

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

It's a Miracle!

And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. -Mark 5:25-29 (NIV)
We all have heard of claims of miraculous cures. Miracles and supernatural claims are the mainstay of religious myths.

The Roman Catholic church claims to have investigated and satisfied itself that miraculous cures have happened before declaring someone a saint, for every saint it canonizes.

On September 5, 1998, Monica Besra, a Bengali woman from the village of Dangram, near Calcutta, India and a mother of five was in pain. She had a malignant ovarian tumor and a visible lump on her belly. To help her, the nuns from Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity placed a medallion of the late Mother Teresa on her stomach and prayed. A beam of light from the medallion came towards Monica, reportedly. When Monica woke up next morning, the tumor was gone! [1] This was the first miracle that the Roman Catholic Church claimed for Mother Teresa's beatification, bringing her a step closer to sainthood.

The story does not end there. Monica Besra later admitted to having gone to the state-run Balurghat Hospital and taken the prescribed medication. Monica's husband Seiku Murmu went on record that his wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle. [2] Dr. Tarun Kumar Biswas and Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, who treated Monica over several months, say Monica responded to their treatment and the lump in her abdomen was not a full-grown tumor. The Vatican reportedly did not consult with these doctors before confirming the miracle. [3] [4]

Here's another story. Back in September 21, 1995, in a temple in New Delhi, a devotee offered milk to a statue of Ganesha. Devotees have been doing this for centuries now. But this time, to everyone's surprise, the statue actually drank the milk. It was a miracle! The miracle was repeated again and again not just in that temple but in nearby temples as well. The news spread rapidly by word of mouth and Ganeshas all over India and even outside India were drinking milk. Statues of other deities like Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvathi, Lord Ganesha's parents were also drinking milk. By end of day, it had taken the proportion of mass religious hysteria. [5]

Scientists from India's Ministry of Science and Technology investigated this and found nothing more than capillary action causing the porous idols to suck up the milk to be the cause. This didn't stop the miracles from recurring in 2006 and again 2010. [6] [7]

The Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, first appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old girl from Lourdes, France back in 1858. The Virgin appeared to her 17 more times. Millions visit Lourdes every year many reporting miraculous healing.

In 1917, the Virgin appeared again, this time to Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco, three shepherd kids at Fatima, Portugal. On October 13, right before the eyes of a crowd numbering thousands, the Sun reportedly changed colors and rotated like a wheel. Jacinta “beheld St. Joseph with the Child Jesus and Our Lady robed in white with a blue mantle, beside the sun.” [8]

Every year, at Sabarimala in the Western Ghats of South India, a few million devotees of the Hindu God Ayyappan assemble for prayer and festivities. Lord Ayyappan the child of Lord Shiva and Goddess Mohini (Lord Vishnu in the female form) is supposed to have meditated at Sabarimala. Every year, on the day of Makara Samkramam, a miraculous light or the Makara Vilakku lights up on the hills near the temple while pilgrims watch. That some people have come forward clarifying that burning a big heap of camphor is the source of the light has not dampened the spirits of the pilgrims. [9] [10]

Not very far from Shabarimala is Potta, a tiny village, also in Kerala, India. Fr. Matthew Naickomparampil, a Catholic Vincentian priest upon receiving divine revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit founded a 'Divine Retreat Center' at Potta. Since its beginning back in 1987, it has grown to become one of the most famous prayer groups in the state. It has since moved to Muringure, near the banks of river Chalakudy. A few thousand people attend the services every week. Many return home cured of their illnesses!

In 2004, in the home of Gregg and Diana Duyser, the face of the Virgin Mary appeared on the grilled cheese sandwich, no less. [11]

The Islamic world is not averse to miracles either. In 1996, a farmer in Senegal discovered a watermelon on which the name of Allah had appeared. In 1999, a Toman fish with markings resembling the words “Ya Allah Ya Malik” got a lot of publicity. Listings of miraculous appearance of the word Allah on the Moon, mountains, fruits, babies' bodies etc is just a google search away.

Sri Sathya Sai Baba, a God-Man from India claimed to have been the reincarnation of another 19th century holy man called Sai Baba. Sathya Sai Baba counted as his devotees ministers and judges and industrialists in India. He was known for producing sacred ash or golden Shiva lingams out of thin air for his devotees. As a child, he was once punished by being asked to stand up on his bench. The teacher who punished him thus was magically glued to the teacher's chair until another teacher stepped in and asked Sai Baba to sit down! These and various other miracles are documented by books published by the Sri Sathya Sai Books & Publications Trust and the websites maintained by them. [12] [13]

Demonic possession is a phenomenon that the Catholic church accepts and has guidelines on how demons may be exorcised. [14] Priests with the sanction of a bishop can perform exorcism. [15]

Stigmata (marks resembling the wounds of the crucified body of Christ) has been claimed by many from St. Francis of Assisi to Padre Pio. [16] Padre Pio went on to be canonized as Saint Pio of Pietrelcina and in anticipation of the canonization, two statues of of the Padre reportedly wept.

Statues sweating or weeping blood or oil or tears have been reported many many many times. Bleeding Eucharists are quite common too. [17]

These are but a sampling of reported miracles. These are not isolated incidents. Reports of miracles and miraculous cures are actually dime a dozen! Yet, none of these miracles, not a single one has been reproduced under controlled conditions where scientists can investigate them. Many have been investigated and some found to be outright fraud. Some aren't. But not a single miracle has been reported in a science journal as a direct result of a deity in action. Not one. Now why would that be?


Confirmation bias

If you are a Protestant or Evangelical Christian, you are very likely to have had a quiet chuckle about the miracles claimed by the Catholic church. If you are a Catholic, the Ganesha miracle would have sounded funny to you. Idols drinking milk! Oh, those idol worshiping Hindus!

Why is it that we wear the skeptic's hat when it comes to other faiths? It is for no reason that it is said that we are all atheists when it comes to most religions that humanity has believed in! Yet, when it comes to our own, we are willing to believe.

Humans have a tendency to exhibit selective thinking and favor information that confirms our beliefs. We are biased in the way we gather information. We are biased in the way we process and retain information. We tend to reduce the importance of pieces of information that conflict with our beliefs and interests. This is a well known phenomenon called confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias explains why we tend to believe the miracles and supernatural claims from our own religious group but are very skeptical about those from other groups.

How do we distinguish faith in miracles from gullibility?

References


[1] Time.com, "Mother Teresa's First Miracle?", Amanda Bower.

[2] Telegraph.co.uk, "Mother Teresa 'miracle' patient accuses nuns", Peter Foster.

[3] Slate.com, "Is Mother Teresa's Miracle for Real?", Charles Duhigg.

[4] Time.com, "What's Mother Teresa Got to Do with It?".

[5] About.com, "15 Years of the Ganesha Milk Miracle: Paranormal Phenomenon of the Last Millennium", Subhamoy Das.

[6] IndianExpress.com, "Idols 'drinking' milk is pure science", Press Trust of India.

[7] About.com, "Did Statues of Hindu Gods Miraculously Consume Milk Offerings to Them?", Whitney Hopler.

[8] Fatima In Lucia's Own Words: Sister Lucia’s Memoirs. 16th edition, July 2007. Edited by Fr. Louis Kondor, SVD.

[9] TheHindu.com, "TDB was lighting the fire: ex-Commissioner", Radhakrishnan Kuttoor.

[10] NewIndianExpress.com, "For God’s sake, end this fraud", M Kesavan Nampoothiry.

[11] CSIcop.org, "Grilled-Cheese Madonna", Joe Nickell..

[12] Time.com, "Sathya Sai Baba: The Man Who Was God Is Dead", Jyoti Thottam.

[13] saibaba.ws, "The Divine Life and Message of Sri Sathya Sai Baba QUIZ", [via the internet archive].

[14] NewAdvent.org, "Catholic Encyclopedia: Exorcism".

[15] Vatican.va, "The Celebration of the Christian Mystery: The Celebration of the Christian Mystery".
When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing. In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called "a major exorcism," can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.

[16] CSIcop.org, "Padre Pio: Wonderworker or Charlatan?", Joe Nickell.

[17] CSIcop.org, "Eucharistic ‘Miracles’", Joe Nickell.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Saint Factory

The Catholic Church is a saint making factory. Starting with Pope John Paul II, the factory dramatically increased its production. Pope Francis in a matter of weeks has already surpassed all of his predecessors. In one fell swoop, he canonized 813 15th century martyrs, last Sunday. These “Martyrs of Otranto” were beheaded by Ottoman soldiers for refusing to convert to Islam.

Per the Catholic Church's rules, attaining sainthood is a two step process which requires one miracle per step. But martyrs can proceed to step two without a confirmed miracle. They just need one miracle to attain sainthood.

Enter Sister Francesca Levote. Sister Levote reportedly recovered miraculously from ovarian cancer after her fellow nuns prayed to the Martyrs of Otranto. This paved the way for Pope Benedict XVI to confirm the miracle and Pope Francis did the rest. It hardly matters that the sister's doctor insists that chemotherapy and radiotherapy helped! The silly doctor must think he knows better than the holy church!

If you think martyrs for Christ are unique, think again. A student of history would know of many many such instances and not just for Christ. For instance, in 782 AD, Charlemagne beheaded 4500 Saxons (pagans) for refusing to convert to Christianity. In 1492 AD, the Spanish King and Queen decided to drive all Jews (about 200,000 of them) out of Spain. Tens of thousands likely died in the exodus. These are but two examples. Want more? Pick up a history book!

So, one is forced ask Pope Francis, why are the Martyrs of Otranto all sainty and special? Is martyrdom for any other god worthless? Is it because of the “miraculous” cure of Sister Francesca Levote?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Keep an Open Mind!

If you are an atheist, it is very likely that you have been asked, at some time or the other, to keep an open mind about God. I have been asked to. Many times.

The position of atheism, the position that there is no good evidence for a God, let alone a personal God is usually arrived at by evaluating the evidence or the lack thereof. Many atheists, in fact, a vast majority of the ones I know of were religious or came from religious families or at least considered religion at one time or another.

[To be sure, if today's trend of more and more people opting for atheism is anything to go by, we will soon see atheists who have not thought through their lack of belief. But that is not the case today.]

Yet, atheists are often asked to keep an open mind by the religious folks. So, tell me now, what is the evidence that atheists are not open about? Where are the arguments that atheists are closed minded about?

The answer of course, is the possibility of existence of God, the possibility that scripture was inspired by God. Throw in the possibility of supernatural, after life and hell and you get the answer.

Being open to an idea is not the same as accepting that idea with no regard to its evidentiary support. The idea of a personal God or a loving deity has been considered and found to lack any grounding in the realities of this world. And that being the case, one can not and should not accept such an idea.

But that is hardly being not open to the idea. If new evidence were to be found, new arguments were to be made, if a compelling case were to be put forward, then many an atheist, myself included, would be quite happy to consider it.

In the absence of such arguments and evidence, my open mindedness does not include embracing a belief in a deity who rules from above, stands in judgment on me, keeps an account of every good and bad deed I do, cares about what I eat and who I sleep with and how and rejoices when I believe in this deity.

Let's try turning the tables on the believers now.

Are believers open to the possibility that there is no God? The vast majority of believers (as anecdotal evidence suggests), hold to to their faith as a matter of faith and often will not consider the possibility of a godless universe.

Many have persuaded themselves that their illusion of God is grounded in fact. I am sure, some have weighed the evidence and come to a conclusion that there is a God. I am sure that is possible, even though I have come to the opposite conclusion.

For believers who are not open to the possibility of a godless universe, to talk about open mindedness is pure hypocrisy.

I am open to being corrected. I am open to new ideas. I am open to new evidence and new arguments! But I am not open to believing in remote possibilities as facts, not without supporting evidence.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Litany of Excuses

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” -Mathew 7:7
When pushed to produce evidence for God or explain the lack of such evidence or evidence suggesting that there isn't any God, we often get many excuses for why that is indeed the case. These are often compelling excuses, until you take the time to think about it. The excuses often contradict each other as well, as you will see.

Here are some often cited ad-hoc explanations for the God theory.

1. You cannot test the Almighty!

This is usually in response to requests or demands that the Almighty make his presence felt. If there is an Almighty God, let that God show himself. This is often met with a retort that you simply cannot test God. This is fair enough except for the claim that the Almighty really wants you to believe in him.

2. There is a plan for you; you just don't know what it is.

When life seems to be going from bad to worse, from the frying pan into the fire, we often wonder if a loving caretaker God is really around. To that, believers of say that God has a plan. It is just not obvious to you or known to you.

Isn't that convenient? Well, do tell that to earthquake victims or genocide victims. When plans can not be explained, just say that we are too stupid to know it or that the plan is so divine that we can't be expected to understand it. This is a classic excuse.

3. God works in mysterious ways.

This is a variation of the previous excuse. It in other words means we are clueless as to what is happening. This excuse is a favorite when a calamity that can't be explained away needs explaining.

4. You can't judge God by human standards!

If we can't use human standards, what exactly does the phrase 'loving God' mean to humans? Would it then be fair then to say that this God is a dreadful one, by human standards?

5. Prayers are answered only when what you ask is good for you.

This is an often heard excuse when prayers are not answered. You might think what you are asking for is good for you. But there might be bad consequences for what you ask for, that you are unaware of! So, the good all-knowing God doesn't answer your prayer and it is all in your very own interest!

We are like little children. We do not know what we want and what we ask for. So, not everything that we ask for can be granted to us! Would a father give a knife to an infant that asks for it? Of course not!
You might think a million dollars and a month long cruise would be good for you. But God might be privy to the future possibility that the cruise that you end up taking would hit an iceberg or you'd catch a disease while cruising, or hookup with someone who breaks your marriage. Or the money might make you greedy for more. And so on. The possibilities are infinite.

Well, perhaps the almighty could also fix the future so that the cruise would be a safe and fun filled one? Well, now that would be too good to ask for!

This excuse is a good one. If you get what you ask for, then God is so loving. If you don't, then God just thinks that what you asked is not good for you just yet. Isn't that a win-win situation no matter what the outcome is?

6. Prayers are answered when the time is right

This is a variant of the earlier excuse. Instead of claiming that what you asked for was not good, this one suggests that you'll indeed receive, but not just yet. Again, do tell that to the earthquake victim.

7. Prayers are answered, but only in the after life.

This is yet another variant of the previous excuse. The blessings you ask for will be showered on you only after you die and go to heaven!

Well, one would have thought that I would not have much use for my million dollars once I am in heaven. With an eternity long vacation in the company of angels playing the harp, who gives a dime for a silly month long cruise or a million dollars?

This is as good as saying that God does not interfere in this life. Well, if only we could know that for sure, we could stop praying for God's intercession in this life.

8. It does not matter if prayers are answered; you should keep asking as you would with your own parents.

This is another variant. Just ask but do not demand results! Just keep asking and take things the way they come. The problem with this is, one might as well not ask! Unless unanswered prayers make you feel good.

9. The more hardships you face in this life the easier your path to salvation

This one is supposed to make you feel good about the hardships you face. Don't worry, you'll get a proportional amount of blessings in the after life to make up for it.

10. It could have been worse!

Given any bad scenario, you can always think of a worse one.
Did you get hurt? You might have been killed!
Did you get killed? You might have been tortured and killed. All your loved ones could have been killed too!
Did you get raped, tortured and killed? Hey, it could have been worse; praise the Lord!

11. You will see all the evidence if you would just believe in God.

If you already believe that there are pink unicorns on the moon, then you can actually come to the realization that there are these, you guessed it, wonderful pink unicorns! And would you like to guess where you'd find these unicorns? The Moon!

12. If you read the Bible with faith, you will believe.

This excuse uses the same inverted argument as the earlier one. The problem with reading the Bible is that it tends to relieve you of your faith. It happened to me. During a time of confusion, I decided that I wanted to read the bible cover to cover. I did not get past a couple of chapters. I ended up deciding that it was all nonsense.

If you have already made up your mind that it is indeed the word of God and it is your duty to somehow harmonize it and make sense of it, and tell yourself that it is your own failing when you can't, you will indeed be able to perceive the 'perfection' of the Bible.

13. If you have faith, you will believe.

This is simply circular reasoning and a variant of the above one.

14. The Old Testament is allegory.

How convenient?! Perhaps you'd consider that it is pious fiction written by the ancient people, to be read for the insights it provides about their world and not as a moral guide in this age and time.

15. Scripture is largely metaphorical. Except for the core dogmas like sin, salvation, the holy trinity etc.

Absolutely everything that you can disprove is allegory. Every evil and disgusting event described in the Bible is allegory. Everything you can't completely disprove is absolutely true. Every unfalsifiable dogma (throw in resurrection, assumption of Mary, belief in an afterlife) that cannot be completely disproved is absolutely true!

Probability, you may stand down!

It does not matter if you can show that the resurrection was very very very very unlikely. If you can not completely disprove something, it is, you guessed it, true. And in case you manage to disprove it, then it is all allegory.

16. Free will

This is the classic excuse for the problem of evil. Why is there evil in a world designed by a do-gooder God? Because God does not force us to do no evil. God has given us all Free Will, people! It is our choice to do evil and hence it is all our own responsibility!

Perhaps tectonic plates and volcanoes have free will too.

It is also interesting that God does not force us to do right or wrong but still manages to perform miracles and resurrect himself to give just a few lucky ones some vague guidelines. There is also the carrots and sticks strategy of heaven and hell. But hey, no pressure. Really, no pressure. Really.

17. God is testing you!

This is a retort when you whine that your prayers are not being answered. It is also an explanation when things go wrong in life.

You should have the same faith that Job had when he lost all his wealth and his family! Well, do tell that to Job's first wife and ten kids. Am I reading the parable too literally now??

How about our own lives? Are the troubles that we face just metaphorical troubles? Maybe not.
That God is just testing them would certainly console the victims of the Tsunami in Japan and the earthquake at Haiti.

18. God is testing you and it is for your own good

Hardships make you better equipped to deal with even more hardships. It's all good.

19. Satan is testing you!

This is a variation of the earlier excuse. This one frees God from the burden of being a tyrant. God is goodness personified, see? It is Satan that is evil!

20. It is a test of your faith!

Do you find inconsistencies in scripture, find religious claims difficult to believe? Well, it is all a test of your faith!

21. Your misfortune is punishment for your sins

This is an explanation for why a misfortune befell you. It is divine punishment. Almost every one of us is ashamed of something or the other that we did. Well, guess what, God did not like it either. And it is now time to face the music.

For instance, some preachers in the United States actually attributed the 9/11 attacks to God's punishment for the sins of the nation.

22. God will only give you what you can handle.

Well, I certainly see the uplifting message in this. But do people seriously think misfortune is dished out based on one's ability to handle it? A child who has lost both its parents in an earthquake would, I am sure, be happy to know that God believes in its capacity to handle misfortune! Or a rape victim. Or victims of torture. Or Savita Halappanavar. Or Nirbhaya...

23. God is good but God cannot let sin go unpunished.

Actually, God can. It is the almighty you are talking about here! In fact, it apparently is God who defined sin as sin. It is God who apparently created us with the tendency to sin. Should God punish himself, then?

24. Human mind cannot understand God

Our difficulty in making sense of all the discrepancies of the God theory is just a facet of the very limited human mind! It is all our fault. Of course, if God had been a better communicator, we might have understood. If God had made us smarter, we might have understood better. Or just dumber and we would have unquestioningly accepted.

More importantly, as I have said before, believers do seem to know a lot about God, including the fact that God can not be understood by us.

Yet, as lacking in understanding as we are, we are still expected to believe! Why are we, so lacking in our ability to understand, mandated to believe?

25. Science can not be used to explain God

The claim is that science and religion are two methods for understanding the natural and supernatural respectively. This assertion is very useful when we find that science indeed strongly suggests that there is no God at all. It is convenient indeed to declare rigorous observation and inference to be invalid methods when it comes to God. Instead we'll just use rigorous fantasy.

26. I just know in my heart that my God is the one.

Well Morpheus, a warm fuzzy feeling in the heart is very far from what is commonly called 'hard evidence'.

27. What if you are somehow wrong?

Yeah, yeah, all your arguments seem to make sense. But what if you are wrong? You puny human, what if you are wrong, in spite of all the evidence?

This is the trump card after using up everything else. Any reasonable person has to agree that we could all be wrong.

What if the weight of evidence tilts the probability against the loving heavenly father? You could still be wrong! We could be living in The Matrix too.

Fallacy fallacy

Let me emphasize here that just because some or all of these excuses are fallacies does not disprove the existence of God. (That would be a fallacy fallacy.) It just means that these excuses are to be recognized for what they are – mere excuses.

That believers often have to resort to these excuses on the is evidence that their belief system is flawed, though not necessarily disproved.

The explanations do not add to the explanatory power to the God hypothesis. They are often untestable arguments. How does one prove that prayers are answered only when what you ask for is really good? It is untestable as the definition of 'good' in reality depends on whether the prayer is answered or not and hence will always be true. That God works in mysterious ways is calling on theology to hold God's actions above investigation. How does one predict the outcome of the actions of a God who is by definition mysterious?

Cognitive Dissonance

These excuses are a mix of different logical fallacies. And the believers seem to always know exactly what God would do and why! The believers seem to be quite capable of reading God's mind!

The reason for coming up with these excuses can be explained with the theory of Cognitive Dissonance. When we have conflicting thoughts, we tend to reduce the conflict by a) changing the cognitions b) adding cognitions or c) altering the importance of cognitions. When believers see a conflict between the idea of a God that has infinite love and a natural calamity, they rationalize it perhaps as God's “mysterious plan”. When prayers are not answered, they rationalize that perhaps the wish was after all not good for them, a classic case of sour grapes. Aesop knew!