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.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Mayor of this Town

Every day, it’s been the same since you were a child. All the people of your happy town open their upstairs windows and gather along main street to cheer and applaud the mayor on his morning walk. Today, he is wearing his top hat and suit with the national flag on it, and people cheer all the louder. Some people have made it their profession to stand on the rooftops and rally the crowds to greater cheers. Everyone loves the mayor, he is just so good, wise and just.

Later that day, you decide to read more of the mayor’s autobiography. It’s a beautiful book with gilded pages that your parents bought you for your eighteenth birthday. You happen to read a part of the mayor’s book that people don’t usually talk about, and suddenly your world spins. The mayor once killed some babies! The mayor killed lots of people! The mayor had a child out of wedlock, with someone else’s fiance! The mayor had slaves, and demanded blood sacrifices!

It’s too much of a shock. When you ask your parents, they glance at each other, then explain that the mayor’s younger years were in a different culture, place and context, and that the mayor doesn’t do those things any more. They explain that, although tricky to understand sometimes, the mayor always does the right thing.

You return to your room and decide to read about what the mayor is like now. He helps people, and gives anything to anyone who asks, and - what’s this? He has built a large torture room beneath his mansion?! He gives people a choice - grovel before him or be tortured in fire, never to return?! Those poor people, nobody deserves to be tortured!

You again ask your parents, but they only assure you that you have nothing to fear - the mayor is just, and you certainly won’t be tortured if you choose to grovel.

The next morning, you find it difficult to muster a cheer. Who is this mayor, smiling in the streets while condemning people to torture? Can we just ignore the fact that he killed lots of babies?

Choose your own adventure:
1. Do you choose to keep cheering, and just trust the mayor and forget about his evil deeds?
2. Do you choose to pretend to cheer so you will fit in with everyone else while secretly opposing the torture?
3. Do you choose to stop cheering the mayor from now on?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Big Surprise

I grew up believing in literal Young Earth Creationism - that God created the world several thousand years ago. I read a lot of supporting literature like the creation science magazines, and was certain the evidence supported creationism. I distinctly remember the sense of joy and accomplishment of envisioning the model of the world’s history, as described in the bible.

Here’s the thing: later, when I learned about evolution, it came as a big surprise to me that it actually really seemed to be supported by the evidence. And as I learned more and more, I was even more surprised that it turned out there was an overwhelming amount of evidence to support the theory of evolution.

I hadn’t even wanted to consider the truth of evolution because, why would I? I knew I was right. And also, I found the implications uncomfortable. Nobody had ever really challenged my knowledge that creationism was correct. When someone finally did, it made me stop and reflect on what I thought I knew and why I thought I knew it. And that led to a big surprise - I had been clinging to unjustified beliefs.

The only way out of these situations is to dig through them, so to speak. When an issue is very important to you, and different groups hold vastly opposing views, you can never be satisfied by just ignoring the topic. The win-win solution is to become a lay-expert, because you either learn something entirely new and change your view, or you learn exactly why the other side is wrong and this strengthens your own foundation in truth.

Now I offer the same challenge to you, dear reader who knows that God created the world a few thousand years ago. Set aside any uncomfortable implications, set aside any authority figures, set aside emotional attachments, set aside things you already just know of course they must be true. I suspect that if you learn a bit from top universities and the scientific consensus, you might be surprised to find that the evidence supports evolution by natural selection.

Summary: I was genuinely surprised to learn that the overwhelming evidence does, in fact, support evolution. I invite the reader to learn about the subject since it will either lead to abandoning a false belief or strengthening a true belief - both are good outcomes. You might be surprised.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Three Dialogues On Identity

This is an entertaining and thought provoking article:

It explores the difficulty, frustration and confusion of meaningful communication when there are different fundamental assumptions being made. I've written about my own experience when my fundamental assumptions changed, so this article resonated with me.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Murder of Ananias and Sapphira - a New Testament Atrocity

The old testament (the Hebrew bible) is full of stories of Yahweh’s cruelties - slavery, genocide, ritual sacrifice, plagues, murders, etc.

In contrast, the new testament contains far less narrative, and has much milder themes. However there are still evil acts performed by Yahweh.
Here’s one: the murders of Ananias and Sapphira. You can read it in Acts 4:32-5:11.

The story goes: the members of the early church decided to sell all of their possessions and live in a commune. Ananias and Sapphira sold everything, but decided to keep some of their money to themselves, and lied to the church about their assets. As a result, Yahweh struck them dead, as pronounced by Peter.

(There's a nice brick testament illustration)

The crime? Withholding some money from the church, and lying about it.

The penalty? Death! No second chances whatsoever!
The judge, jury, and executioner? Yahweh!

In my mind, this is an evil act, an unjustified killing, a murder. It’s the sort of act you’d expect from a mafia boss.“Tony, you’re holding out on me? Nobody holds out on me! Why do you go behind my back like this? Now I have to kill you!”

According to the bible, when Jesus was walking around he was all “Money doesn’t matter, give everything to the poor, even the birds have food.” After he ascended to heaven, he’s more like “Give me ALL of your money, and don’t lie about it, or I’ll KILL YOU ON THE SPOT!”

Question: Can you think of an excuse for why it was justified for Yahweh to kill those people?
The excuse only has to convince yourself.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Discrimination only allowed by the religious

In Australia, employers can’t discriminate on certain criteria when employing someone:

These are:
  • race 
  • colour 
  • sex 
  • sexual preference 
  • age 
  • physical or mental disability 
  • marital status 
  • family or carer’s responsibilities 
  • pregnancy 
  • religion 
  • political opinion 
  • national extraction or social origin. 


But there’s an exception:

The Fair Work Act 2009 also provides that in some circumstances, an action may not be considered discrimination.
This includes where the action:
  • is permissible under State or Territory anti‑discrimination laws 
  • is based on the inherent requirements of the particular position concerned 
  • is taken against a staff member of an institution run in accordance with religious beliefs, and the action is taken in good faith and to avoid injury to those religious beliefs

So, any institution run in accordance with religious beliefs is allowed to discriminate in any way that the religion dictates. This is one whopper of a loophole.

Can a mormon charity refuse to employ any black people? Can a catholic run hospital refuse to employ anyone who has had a child while unmarried? Can a muslim school refuse to employ any women? Can a christian coffee shop refuse to employ homosexual people?

What if I want to only employ young, single women who are white and don’t have family commitments? That’s very discriminatory and illegal, unless, apparently, I plead “religion!” It seems bizarre that a special exception is made to explicitly allow discrimination by religious institutions. And the reason is to avoid “injury to religious beliefs”.

Furthermore, there’s a massive conflict of interest when the religious institution receives government money (either as tax breaks, or other financial assistance), because it means the government is actively supporting this niche of discrimination. And any legal dispute on the matter means that a court of law has to start deciding what a person’s religious beliefs are, in order to figure out if they’ve been “injured”.

There’s a simple solution: I just think that labelling something “religion” should invoke no special treatment by law, whatsoever. Whether an institution carries values of a religion or a sporting code or an alternative therapy or a commitment to optimism or a hatred of tall people or an adoration of marmalade - these should have no bearing on who can be discriminated against.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

How do you know the bible is from God?

How do you know that the bible isn’t just a creation of a clever demon who is trying to trick lots of people? Perhaps the demon can communicate with people, give them feelings, cause the occasional miracle, etc.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Do you think an invisible person exists?

In our lives, there are many people who can give us expert guidance in all manner of fields. From mechanics who can fix cars, to politicians who can direct countries, to doctors who can heal us, to priests who give moral guidance. Sometimes it’s hard to know who is actually competent in their proclaimed expertise, and who is not-so-competent.

I’ve devised a little test that I think can provide some sort of indication. You ask them the question: “Do you think that an invisible person exists?”

Imagine a financial adviser told you which assets to invest in, and then said “oh, and also, I happen to believe that an invisible person exists.” It would undermine his credibility.

Imagine you had to choose between two people to direct your military forces, and one of those people believed that an invisible person existed. I would choose the other person to lead, the one who didn’t think any people could be invisible.

Perhaps you are offered conflicting moral guidance from two institutions, and one of the institutions proudly asserts that an invisible person exists. Again, the people who don’t think a person can be invisible just sound more credible. What if the first group claimed to actually be able to talk to the invisible person!? Even, getting their moral insights from an invisible person!!

It’s certainly a very limited test, but I think you can get some sort of indication of a person’s thinking skills by asking whether they think an invisible person exists. You can substitute other questions if you like, but I haven’t thought of a more incisive question. Perhaps something like “Do you think that you will live forever?”, or “Do you think reptilians rule the country?”, or something else indicative of a not-quite-having-thought-it-through mentality.

Summary: When evaluating someone’s mental acuity, asking the question “Do you think that an invisible person exists?” can give an indication.