Friday, January 23, 2015

An article on circumcision

As a follow up to my recent circumcision themed article, I stumbled across this article on the subject.
It's written by an expert in the field and is a very balanced overview of the whole picture, in my opinion.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Circumcision: good and bad body parts

Pop quiz: when is it ok to cut someone with a knife? When you’re a surgeon performing a surgical procedure. Cutting someone with a knife causes harm, but it’s good to do if it’s preventing an even bigger harm. All surgery carries risk and discomfort, but there are very good reasons to undergo surgery.

Recently the topic of circumcision came up in conversation. When I hear about people causing harm to babies, it’s a topic that deserves attention. (Here's also a previous post on the topic)

Some paediatricians say that the benefits of circumcision are worth the harms caused. Some disagree.

The American Medical Association (AMA) made this statement in support of routine infant circumcision:

The AMA supports the general principles of the 2012 Circumcision Policy Statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which reads as follows: "valuation of current evidence indicates that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks; furthermore, the benefits of newborn male circumcision justify access to this procedure for families who choose it. Specific benefits from male circumcision were identified for the prevention of urinary tract infections, acquisition of HIV, transmission of some sexually transmitted infections, and penile cancer.

This is an extraordinary statement: the health benefits of a surgical procedure on a perfectly healthy person outweigh the risks. Or, restated, this body part is so malignant that undergoing a surgical procedure (with associated risks) will generally give an overall health benefit.

I’ve created a scale of body part goodness/badness.

  1. Useful and essential - keep! (eg. kidneys)
  2. Useful but non-essential. Keep unless therapeutic surgical removal is required. (eg. gall bladder)
  3. Neutral body part, just as fine with or without it. - Keep unless therapeutic surgical removal is required, because surgery always carries risk of complications. (Earlobe)
  4. Potentially harmful body part - surgically remove only if it’s causing trouble, because surgery always carries risk of complications. (eg. tonsils, appendix, wisdom teeth)
  5. Seriously harmful body part - surgically remove even if it’s not causing trouble, as a preventative measure. (significant deformation)
  6. Extremely harmful body part - surgically remove at earliest opportunity without therapeutic indication, without patient consent, at great pain to the patient. (life threatening deformation, highly contagious parasite?)
The AMA places foreskins as a number 6 on this scale. By contrast, most of the world’s physicians place a foreskin somewhere between 2 and 4 - having the characteristic that if it’s not actively causing harm, don’t perform surgery. Here is a recent statement by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians:

“After reviewing the currently available evidence, the RACP believes that the frequency of diseases modifiable by circumcision, the level of protection offered by circumcision and the complication rates of circumcision do not warrant routine infant circumcision in Australia and New Zealand.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics is vastly at odds with most of the world, receiving criticism.

Of course, circumcision is not simply a medical issue.

Really, there are two very different parts to this discussion. First and foremost, circumcision is a religious and cultural practice performed for reasons of tradition, religion, and belonging to a community and family group.
Secondly, circumcision is a medical procedure with some harms and benefits associated with it.

People have a massive emotional investment in the first aspect, which utterly dwarfs the medical analysis, so it’s almost impossible to have a straight conversation about the matter without people getting upset. Generally, people either strongly support the practice or strongly oppose it, and then they look for reasons to support their view.

So, we can examine the question from a religious perspective, a cultural perspective, a preventative surgery perspective, a human rights perspective, etc. And the question is this:

Which parts of a baby is it better to cut off, and which parts of a baby is it better to leave intact?

(It feels ghastly even having the discussion, to be frank).

“It’s not ok to surgically modify baby penises!” declare one group.
“Baby penis modification is just fine!” retorts the other group.
“Don’t use surgical procedures unless there’s a therapeutic benefit!” says the first.
“But foreskins are bad - it’s always worth the risk to chop them off!” says the second.
“Can’t you at least wait till the person is old enough to decide for himself?”
“No, it’s better to perform the surgery on babies! Their choice is irrelevant!”
“The evidence shows very minor benefits at best, and you’re ignoring the harms.”
“No, the evidence shows significant benefits, mainly for sexually transmitted diseases.”
“It’s violating the child’s right to personal autonomy”
“I have a right to modify my baby’s penis if I want to.”

And while the discussion continues, babies are being hurt by surgeons with knives. Is the gain worth it?

Question: Where on the goodness/badness scale above do you consider a foreskin to be?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Gender Equality Questions

I think men and women should be treated equally. I’m not going to win any Nobel prizes for that statement, it’s a common view. So, for example, I am totally in support of the brave 1920’s suffragettes who broke new ground in gender equality, I think women should have full autonomy of their own bodies, etc. But I’m genuinely uncertain about some of the details, and am open for comment from however many “sides” there are. For example, I once spoke to a person who insisted it was a travesty that bricklayers are mostly men - I wasn't so sure.

I've written some incisive questions, and presented my best “for” and “against” positions for each of these (For most, I’m actually undecided!). I’m interested in your opinions, so please leave a comment addressing any or all of the questions.

Point one: Is it a problem that most bricklayers are male, and most preschool teachers are female?
Yes: this is just as bad as gender inequality in any other profession, and indicates a systemic problem.
No: there is some truth to the stereotype that men are stronger and women tend to be more nurturing to infants. It's fine that people choose careers that match their abilities and inclinations.

Point two: Is it a problem that we have gender separated toilets?
Yes: this is as bad as race separated toilets. There is truly no good reason to separate toilets like this, and some places are beginning to only use gender neutral toilets. Plus it causes problems for anyone who doesn't fit a male or female stereotype.
No: there are valid privacy, hygiene and safety issues, particularly for women.

Point three: Is it a problem that gender is a very large part of most people’s identity? (this is reflected in free choice of clothing, for example)
Yes: ideally, people would not label themselves male or female in any strong sense.
No: gender is deeply ingrained in most people’s psyche whether we like it or not.

Point four: Is it a problem that we have gender-specific pronouns?
Yes: it’s just as bad as race-specific pronouns would be.
No: Quite often it provides additional clarity and communicates better. And besides, it's almost impossible to change a language in that way.

Point five: Is it a problem that sporting events are separated by gender?
Yes: we don’t separate by race, either. Just consider everyone on their merit alone.
No: men tend to be stronger, so very few women would be able to compete in some sports. It's actually good for gender equality to have, say, a women's soccer league.

Point six: Is it a problem to treat people differently based on whether they might become pregnant or not? (eg. give them more paid leave than people who cannot become pregnant.) (Yes I’m talking about maternity leave and paternity leave being non-identical)
Yes: men and women should be treated equally out of principle. It’s wrong to ask about pregnancy in a job interview, and it’s also wrong to give child-expecting women more leave than child-expecting men.
No: It’s still wrong to ask about pregnancy during a job interview, but realistically, women go through more strain in childbirth and are biologically the primary caregivers for many months, thus require more leave.

Point seven: Is it wrong for insurance companies, security forces, etc. to use gender as a means of profiling people, even when supported by actuarial data?
Yes: it’s just as bad as racially profiling people, which is also wrong. Even if there’s statistical significance, it’s important as a society not to treat people differently due to gender. We don’t charge one racial group more for car insurance, and we shouldn’t charge one gender more.
No: it’s fine to use whatever profiling is necessary if there are gains to society overall. By searching more young men than old ladies, we catch more bombers. It’s fair to charge young men more for car insurance if they (as a group) cause more accidents.

Point eight: Is it a problem that there are female-only gyms?
Yes: this is clearly sexual discrimination, just as bad as “whites-only” gym or “men-only” business school.
No: there is great demand for this kind of business, and women should be able to exercise away from men if they choose.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Theory of mind and the hard problem of consciousness

During my deconversion from Christianity, one of the biggest sticking points for me was the idea that souls don’t exist.

The conflict in my mind was this: Sure, on the one hand, I could see that all mental processes could be explained by brain activity, and that there’s no good reason to think metaphysical things like souls exist. But on the other hand, I had my own subjective experience of seeing the world and it just didn’t feel like brain states. I am here, I am conscious, I am me, … so how can I just be a collection of cells, molecules, atoms, chemistry? It’s almost as if there’s no way to connect my own subjective existence with the model that people are entirely physical.

Relevant buzzwords section:
This is sometimes called the hard problem of consciousness. It’s the question of substance dualism. Do I have a “soul”? The “mind” versus the “brain”. The philosopher's zombie is a thought experiment on this topic.

I mean, every night I go somewhat unconscious for a few hours. One time I had surgery and was completely unconscious for a while, as far as I can tell. And people’s consciousness can be altered by brain injuries or drugs. So, consciousness isn’t as hard and fast as it might appear at first.

But despite all of this realisation, it still didn’t sit 100% properly in my mind that my own conscious experience could be explained by physics alone. The feeling had gradually subsided since I lost my faith, but there was still this nagging idea that just maybe there was some supernatural explanation for my own mind.

Recently I had a sudden realisation that surprisingly helped to resolve all of this in my mind.

I’ll jump to the punchline first: I realised that people’s models of the world contained their own minds. It sounds overly simplistic at first but I’ll explain why it was a eureka moment for me.

Of course, I already knew that people imagine human brain activity all the time. It was more of an intuitive shift than a logical shift, but an important one because you only get intuitions about things you understand well enough to feel it. Basically, theory of mind clicked a little better for me.

Here’s the progression:

1. Animals and very small children just see the world egocentrically. There is no theory of mind, just one model of the world.
I like to think of this like a single player first-person game.

2. Next is theory of mind. Children develop this at a young age, and are able to model other people’s minds in their own mind.
Think of a multiplayer first-person game.

3. Take it another level of meta. The person is able to see themselves as a mind - they model their own mind in their mind.
Think of a multiplayer third-person game, where the player’s character is seen from above.

4. Now another level. The person is able to explicitly see that they have a model of themselves in their mind.
Think of watching somebody play the above game.

So basically what happened was I jumped from level 3 to level 4. It’s significant because at level 3, you see the world like this: there’s you (who has a mind) and there are other people (who also have minds). But at level 4, there’s no distinction between how you view your own mind and how you view other people’s minds. It’s tricky to put into words but it means that I can comfortably accept that my own mind is purely physical in the same way that I can look at a mouse’s brain and say it’s purely physical. It just bridged the conceptual gap between “subjective experience mind” and “observably physical brain” on an intuitive level.

Now that I've pointed it out to you, you are of course at level 5, modelling 4 inside your head. There’s no limit to the meta levels. But the important level to hit for me was 4, because for the first time, I could actually see my own conscious, first hand experience as the same thing as other people - purely physical. I don’t want to be misconstrued or misquoted - I do not think I'm different or better than other people or anything like that - I'm purely talking about the conceptual separation of seeing a collection of physical brain cells, and having my own thoughts and experiences. They seem so separate.

I’ll say it again in another way: At level 2 or 3, the minds I see around me don’t match my own subjective experience. They’re over there, and I'm in here. (the difference between 2 and 3 is whether I'm modelling my own mind). But at level 4, I can step back and see that my model of my own mind is the same as my model of other people’s minds.

I strongly suspect that if you are not a materialist, you have not had the insight I've had. You still feel that there’s some kind of non physical element to your own consciousness. Most of the world agrees with you. But I disagree because of the insight described in this post.

It’s difficult to express clearly. I've accepted for a long time now that minds are a product of brain function, they’re not some floaty soul or something. Daniel Dennett convinced me of this, with his cartesian theatre discussion, and this was an epiphany for me earlier (I wrote a post about it). But it still just felt like my own subjective experience of looking out through these eyes wasn’t simply the result of unconscious cells. I could never fully bridge that gap between the outsider’s view of the brain and the insider’s experience of the brain. Until this thing happened. And the thing that happened was someone pointed out to me that we have a model of our own mind inside our mind. That's the epiphany.

Because that enabled me to see, for the first time ever, that inside my mental model of the world, my own mind is exactly the same as other people’s minds.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Learning that you’re going to die

As a child grows up, they learn more facts about the world around them. They learn about death at some point, and the concept usually takes a bit of getting used to the first time it’s really understood.

So it’s interesting to me that many of my friends and family don’t think they’re going to die. Sure, they know their body will eventually age, stop, and decompose, but they think they themselves will never die. That their consciousness will literally live on forever in the afterlife.

Part of the difficulty of letting go of my Christianity was the uncomfortable acceptance that I was going to die - really, truly, actually die. Never be conscious again. Cease to exist in every way. It sounds trite to state it so plainly, but there it is. My whole life I had believed in heaven with the childish naivety that Christianity actively encourages. (Matt 18:3)

Realising I was going to die changed my priorities a little and focused my appreciation of life. For example, while I was a Christian I had decided that it wasn’t important to travel and see the world because after the second coming of Jesus, I would have a thousand years to see the sights. Now, every day is precious.

Everyone realises the difficulty and sensitivity a young child experiences when first truly appreciating the concept of death. Christian dogma means that people don’t have to face the concept of death squarely, meaning that some people only fully appreciate death later in life, and some people live their entire life without thinking they will truly die.

Consider the progression:
1. "Mummy, why has that beetle stopped moving?" "He's just sleeping, dear."
2. "Mummy, what happened to rover?" "He's gone to doggy heaven."
3. "Mummy, what happened to grandma?" "She's in heaven now."
4. "Mummy, what will happen to me when I get old and die?" "You'll go to heaven and live forever."

For a long time, had overcome the naive belief in 1 and 2, but was still accepting 3 and 4, like most Christians. Number 4 is the real kicker when it finally sinks in.

For Christians, even "true spiritual death" in rejecting God involves your spirit living on forever in torment (in hell or separate from God). Even God's declaration to Adam "You shall surely die" involves living forever. Christianity really skirts around the concept of death.

The point of this post is that it was distressing and very uncomfortable to accept that I was actually going to die (bearing some similarity to a child's first understanding). And the second point of this post is that many of my friends and family don't think they're going to die (just like I didn't, a few years ago).

Question: Do you think you are going to die - really, truly, ultimately, finally cease to exist? Or do you think you are not going to die in that ultimate sense? Why?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Vicarious Punishment is Always Immoral

Vicarious punishment is always immoral.

Part of the core of Christianity is the idea of vicarious punishment: someone being punished for somebody else’s crime. But vicarious punishment is always immoral because it causes unnecessary suffering to somebody. It is one thing to withhold punishment from a guilty person (this is called mercy), but it is another thing to then inflict that punishment on a non-guilty person (always immoral!). And guilt itself cannot actually be transferred, no matter what any bizarre legal code says. Vicarious punishment is always immoral and makes no sense.

Of course, the real useful function it serves in Christianity is to create a sense of guilty obligation in everyone. Jesus died for you, so don’t you feel you owe something back? Nope. He didn’t die for me, he died because he committed a crime of sedition that was punishable by death under Roman law. I don’t owe Jesus anything more than I owe Socrates.

Dan Barker gives a good analogy of the situation - imagine a guy approaches you in the street and says that you’ve done something to offend him and you deserve to be tortured in his basement. But, he says, good news! My son is being tortured down there, so you don’t have to!

Can you see that the vicarious punishment in this scenario makes no sense, and is immoral?

My point is that children are being taught vicarious punishment, and it’s a very disturbing and immoral thing. It’s just so deeply ingrained in Christian culture that it goes completely unnoticed, seems quite normal. But it’s always immoral. When you look at the Christian tradition with fresh eyes, you realise that nobody has to die, nobody has to go to hell.

Question: Can you think of a real-world example of vicarious punishment that you consider to be moral?

Edit: Someone has answered this question and changed my mind on the issue. See the comments.

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Person Paper on Purity in Language

I recently stumbled upon this gem:

It's a great article by Douglas Hofstadter, written in 1985.

I don't want to spoil it by discussing it too much, but it raised my consciousness to something. It's (usually) nice when that happens.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Would you disobey God?

What wouldn’t you do if God told you to do it?

Here’s the scenario: Over some days, you have been feeling very strongly that God wants you to do a particular task. You pray long and hard about it, and your inner conviction becomes stronger. You can see that the bible does technically support this task, despite your initial hesitation, and you find many verses to confirm this. Additionally, a friend who is a pastor calls you up out of the blue and tells you that God put it on his heart that you should do this task. Then, even more things happen to convince you beyond any doubt. You are sure that God is telling you to do this thing. Now, you must decide: do you do the task?

But what is the task? Consider the scenario with each of the below tasks, and decide if you would do it.
  1. Pray for good weather for an important upcoming event.
  2. Pray right now for a close family member who, it has been revealed, is currently in danger.
  3. Give a specific amount of money, about one week’s income, to a specific charity that you support.
  4. Take the day off from work (or your normal routine) in order to spontaneously evangelise and tell strangers about Jesus on the streets in your town.
  5. Picket an abortion clinic in order to save the lives of unborn babies.
  6. Tell young children about the eternal torment that exists in hell for some people.
  7. Quit your job and go into full time ministry.
  8. Become a missionary overseas in a poor country for at least a year.
  9. Pray publicly at a funeral for the deceased to come back to life.
  10. Disown all friends and family who disagree on religious doctrine.
  11. Sell all your possessions and give the proceeds to your church.
  12. Refuse to take your very sick child to the hospital, as an act of faith that God will heal them.
  13. Harass a doctor who performs abortions, in order to save the lives of unborn babies.
  14. Burn down an abortion clinic, in order to save the lives of unborn babies.
  15. Shoot a doctor who performs abortions, in order to save the lives of unborn babies.
  16. Shoot everyone in a small community because they continuously commit very evil deeds and oppose God.
  17. Shoot your own child, for no particular reason except to demonstrate devotion to God.
  18. Kill yourself in a suicide bombing to kill many people who continuously commit very evil deeds and oppose God.

Remember: you are completely convinced that God is telling you to do this - you have no doubt whatsoever.

Many of these actions were performed by the role models in the bible under direct instruction from God. Many of these actions have been performed by modern day faithful who believed they were following God’s instructions. For example, most Christians will say that 15 is just a crazy guy doing a bad deed, but 16 is somehow fine. Personally, I think genocide is bad.

Question: Is there any limit to your obedience of God? Where do you draw the line, and exactly why?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The not-so-great commission

Picture a bustling town in the green countryside. Every day is filled with the usual happy activities of life. People grow crops, bake bread, build houses, raise children.

One day, a traveller arrives from the hills. He walks around the town square yelling a warning:

“Beware! Beware! Vampires are about to attack from the hills! You’re all in terrible danger! Spread the word - they’ll be here any day now! Grab your garlic and silver bullets!”

This causes a terrible commotion. Some of the townsfolk just ignore the warning, squinting at the hills and saying “I don’t see any vampires.” Some of the townsfolk take to wearing garlic and carrying guns loaded with silver bullets, but after a couple of days they lose interest and start to forget about the precautions. Some of the townsfolk carry garlic and silver bullets, but then they are barred from their favourite pubs due to the smell, and they decide they’d rather enjoy a good pint, so they ditch the garlic.
But some townsfolk hear the warning, take it seriously, and stick to it. Day after day they rub their clothes in garlic. They set up cannons with silver cannon balls. They place a mirror on every street corner. And most of all, they spread the warning to others.

The original traveller has long since gone (he tried to overthrow the government and was locked up in the capital city), but these zealous townsfolk maintain their vigil, calling themselves the Watchers. They blow trumpets and yell a warning of the coming doom to everyone around. Whether people listen - that’s their choice, but they have been warned. Any day now, the vampires will attack.

Many years pass, and the townsfolk are, on the whole, tolerant of the powerful garlic smell that the Watchers always bring with their persons. However, when the Watchers tried to pass laws to compel all citizens to wear garlic (for their own good of course!), the townsfolk did put up resistance and the law was struck down.

Nobody has ever seen a vampire, but the Watchers insist that the threat is real and imminent. The attack could come any day now, and will be catastrophic! Plus, they point out, it’s best to wear garlic because if there aren’t any vampires, you lose nothing, but if there are vampires, it will save your life!

Look at the cost. All this silly nonsense of wearing garlic and spending money on silver bullets, all this effort of yelling warnings, all this terrible fear of a coming catastrophe. It’s all just superstitious nonsense, taking precious time away from growing crops, baking bread, building houses, raising children.


When I was questioning my faith, I asked my pastor why he believed. This is part of his answer to me:

I imagine myself swimming at the beach oblivious to the fact that I am caught in a rip and being swept out to sea to my doom. I realize my peril and start to swim, drifting all the further to my fate. But there is a lifesaver so I raise my arms in distress. My act of faith if you will. He sweeps across the waves and he saves me. He doesn't ask me to swim 10 metres to get to him. To earn my salvation. He simply saves me. I was destined for death and now I am alive. So for the rest of my life I will give testimony to how he saved me. His "word" to me is from now on swim between flags. Catch big waves enjoy your life but swim between the flags. Never forget the day I saved you and tell others to enjoy me and swim between the flags. I will keep predators from attacking you. I will call you into the shallows when it is not safe but I want you to enjoy the life I have given you.

He is convinced there is a terrible danger, represented as a deadly current in the ocean. He sees the need to take precautions and tell others about this danger. The peril is, of course, suffering for all eternity in hell, and the good news is that there is a way to be saved from this impending doom.

He might as well be wearing garlic, convinced he's been rescued from vampires.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Religious discrimination based on sexuality

The Australian gay and lesbian rights association is campaigning to remove the religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

I have written about this before. It doesn't just affect sexuality groups - currently the law seems to allow any arbitrary discrimination against any group dictated by the religious views.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Judging Satan

Do you believe that Satan exists?

If so, I have a question:
On what criteria do you judge that God is good and Satan is evil?

Stop and think about it. How do you know that Satan isn’t the good one, and God the evil one? How could you tell?
Or maybe they are both sort of equal, just with different ways of doing things?

I really recommend thinking about it.

If you have no way to determine this, then you might just be serving an evil god. A god who kills babies and orders genocide. A god who arranges for people to be tortured horribly for eternity. Furthermore, if you have no way to determine this, you have no moral judgement - you can’t tell good from evil.

On the other hand, if you do have a way to determine this, then it means that morality exists independently from God, because God can be judged to be either moral or immoral.

Many Christians just end up saying something like “Whatever God says, that defines what is good.” This is Divine Command Theory, and boils down to “might makes right.” It’s fallacious because being powerful doesn’t make someone good.

Question: How do you judge whether God and Satan are good or bad?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Another mystical martial arts failure

Here's another entertaining example of a mystical martial art failing under the most straightforward of tests.

It's pretty similar to what I've written about before. It only works if you think it works (that is, it doesn't actually work).

Friday, November 29, 2013

Numbers 31: The story of Moses and the Midianites

(Numbers 31:1-18)
And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the children of Israel.”

And they warred against the Midianites, just as the Lord commanded Moses, and they killed all the males.
And the children of Israel took the women of Midian captive, with their little ones, and took as spoil all their cattle, all their flocks, and all their goods.
But Moses was angry...And Moses said to them: “Have you kept all the women alive?
Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately.
But keep alive for yourselves all the young girls who have not known a man intimately.

That’s the story of Moses and the Midianites.


See that guy wearing the green shoes in the illustrations? Who is that guy?

Perhaps it's just a soldier in the Israelite army, being obedient to God.

Perhaps that’s Jesus, always obedient to Yahweh, his heavenly father. What do you think - would Jesus have murdered, pillaged, and enslaved, or would he have rebelled against his heavenly father?

Perhaps the guy in green shoes is Peter the apostle, or Paul, or John, or the local vicar, or the Pope, or the Archbishop of Canterbury - all of whom claim to obey this Yahweh character.

Maybe you know someone who claims to obey the God of the bible. Maybe it’s that person in the green shoes, obediently following God’s direct orders, just like the Israelites did, according to the bible.

There’s such stark contrast between the reasonable behaviour of most modern Christians, and the horrible atrocities of God depicted in the bible. I don’t think the two can be reconciled - you can’t claim that God is good and that he does horrific things like killing babies.

Summary: In the bible, God and Moses lead the Israelites in horrible atrocities such as killing babies and genocide. These are evil acts that a typical Christian wouldn't commit.

Question: If God told you to kill babies, would you do it?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Psychological Pressure of Faith

Imagine you have a son who is terribly, chronically sick with convulsions and other symptoms. A brilliant doctor has developed a unique cure and is visiting your town! You make an appointment with the knowledge that this is probably the only chance for your son to be cured - that’s all that matters to you. When you finally see the doctor, he fills a syringe and explains that this injection will fully cure the boy. Just as the needle hovers over your son’s shoulder, the doctor stops and says “I can only cure him if you are not at all stressed. Are you stressed?” Tension and bewilderment fill you. What!? You try to relax, just... relax… but it’s not working too well. The doctor raises an eyebrow and starts to place the syringe back on the table. You fall to your knees, tears streaming from your eyes, and plead “I’m relaxed! Help my stress levels!”

Why would the doctor do that? Dangle the cure that means everything on another person’s mental state?

It’s actually very similar to what Jesus does in Mark 9:14-27. A man begs for his sick child to be healed, and Jesus replies that if the man believes, then his son will be cured. The man is reduced to tearful pleading, crying out “Master, I believe! Help my unbelief!”

Can you feel the psychological pressure that is present in both of these stories? Something so important is at stake - your child’s health - and you have to alter how you perceive the world in order to attain it.

This causal link between mind-state and material outcome is a core belief of the evangelical Christianity I grew up with. It’s always presented in a positive way: believe, and you will receive! If you’re sick, just have faith and God will cure you! For the faithful, even a mountain will move out of your way!

But this mindset causes an immense amount of psychological pressure and anguish for anyone who takes it seriously. Your own beliefs are what cause things around you to happen. If your faith can be responsible for a fig tree withering, then your faith can be responsible for fig tree not withering. Jesus reprimanded the disciples for having too little faith, explaining that’s often why they didn’t see miracles occur.

During the 90’s there was a big move towards the prosperity doctrine, speaking out in faith, speaking wealth and health over people and situations. Kenneth Copeland would talk about overcoming illness by literally speaking out against it, loudly. “I rebuke you, sore throat, and I cast you out in the mighty name of Jesus!”

The tension comes because of this fact: You cannot choose what to believe. You can’t just decide to think something is true. The best you can do is to convince yourself that you think something is true - this is exactly like the “doublethink” described by George Orwell in the novel 1984, in which journalists made themselves believe their own alterations to historical records.

Evangelical Christianity promotes the idea of renewing your mind - letting go of “worldly” ways of thought, and embracing godly ways of thought found in the bible.

I remember my youth pastor explaining how he would read a bible verse over and over, reciting it while pacing in his house. At first, he wouldn’t believe it. But after hours of reciting it, he would start to feel that it was true. Eventually he would be confidently declaring the bible verse, effectively claiming victory over that aspect of reality. “I walk by faith, not by sight!”

But in order to consciously decide to make yourself believe something, you must be dishonest, because you don’t currently believe that thing is true. You have to just try to kind of trick yourself into thinking that you believe it, and after enough time, it might stick, if you don’t think about it too much.

This is fairly benign when you just want warm and fuzzy feelings from internalising nice verses, but at some point a believer might actually expect some kind of result from their faith - and this can lead to terrible psychological anguish.

The unique trick of faith is that it, by definition, defies examination. You can’t ever evaluate whether faith actually works, because the instant you try to, your own action of doubt has already caused it to fail. As soon as you even consider the possibility that believing something won’t make it real, then you no longer believe, so it won’t become real. And it’s your own doubt that caused it.

And so, if it’s something really important that you need, like healing for your son, you are left on your knees, tears in your eyes, begging “Lord, I’m trying to believe! Help me to ignore my rational thinking skills! Don’t let my mental state cause my son to suffer convulsions, please!!!”

And if the healing doesn’t come… maybe, maybe you could’ve just had more faith.

That is the psychological pressure of believing that faith can cause miracles.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Atheism is the neutral ground

Consider the question: Do you believe that any gods exist?
If you answer yes, you are a theist.
If you answer anything else, you are an atheist.

Babies are born without belief in any gods. All babies begin as atheists.
Some children are told that gods exist, and believing this, they become theists.

That’s actually how I grew up. Later in life, I realised that I had no reason or evidence to support my belief in god - it was an unjustified belief. So I reverted to the neutral ground of lacking belief in that particular thing.

Atheism doesn’t make any claims - it’s simply the neutral ground with respect to belief in gods.