Thursday, March 28, 2019

Is Scandinavia a Secular Paradise?

(From How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test, David Marshall)

As noted above, the secularist community has, in recent years, often pointed to such countries as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden to demonstrate the superiority of Secular Humanism over Christianity.  The work of sociologist Phil Zuckerman has been especially important in making this argument popular and seem credible.  While more cautious than some of his disciples, Zuckerman does indeed write with enthusiasm and persuasiveness about happy, “peaceful, and relatively godless Denmark” and Sweden:

“Quaint towns, inviting cities, beautiful forests, lonely beaches, healthy democracies, among the lowest violent crime rates in the world, the lowest levels of corruption in the world, excellent educational systems, innovative architecture, strong economies, well-supported arts, successful entrepreneurship, clean hospitals, delicious beer, free health care, maverick filmmaking, egalitarian social policies, sleek design, comfortable bike paths – and not much faith in God.”[1]

Friday, March 22, 2019

Did Christianity mess with Valerie Tarico's Mind? The Evidence

Perhaps one should ignore such a post as vulgar sneering, and move quietly along.  But it is our job here to parse facts and seek truth.  Does Christian faith (in whatever form) mess with our minds?  Let's consider Tarico's arguments: 

A local psychologist, Valerie Tarico, posted today, with typical New Atheist grace (pardon the language), on "Evangelical Christianity's 10 Biggest Mindfucks."

"Just messing with you.  Those are the
droids you're looking for, after all."
1. It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship. This quip is popular with campus evangelism groups like Athletes in Action and Cru. You might even have seen it on a bumper sticker at some point, because it’s one of Evangelicalism’s favorite ways of saying, We’re not like all those other (obviously false) faith-based belief systems. We just love Jesus and Jesus loves us, and he loves you, too.

From the inside, this relationship thing feels really real and really good. But from the outside its a bunch of transparent hooey. Your born-again Christianity is a love relationship—with a character whose name and history you got from a set of ancient texts that were compiled and handed down by a vast hierarchical organization that once torched dissenting texts (and people). And this not-religion has sacred writings and rituals and leaders and schools of systematic theology, and it dictates what people are supposed to believe and how they’re supposed to behave. And it provides all the same social functions and structures as religions. But Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship. Uh, huh.

I'm not fond of this saying myself, not because I don't get the point, but because it is a cliché, because the word "religion" is vague and misunderstood, and because the dichotomy between "religion" and "relationship" is false on most understandings of the former. 

But none of that is as Dawkins-awful as Tarico's history.  The gospels were copied by scribes who were not, in fact, associated with murder or censorship, however Tarico may strain to draw the link.  The "vast hierarchical organization" view of the Catholic church is anachronistic and not a little paranoid, also has nothing whatsoever to do with the gospels.

So religion is to be defined by "social functions and structures?"  Good.  I'm glad we're agreed, then, that Communism and Secular Humanism are usually religions.  Not all New Atheists see that.

See the source image
Krishna and Arjuna
Even so, social functions and structures are, in fact, about relationships.  Islam posits certain relationships between man and God, among believers, and between believers and unbelievers.  The Hindu Bhaghavad Gita is, from one perspective, all about relationships.  So even more clearly are the Confucian scriptures.  So is the Communist Manifesto. 

Christianity is both a religion -- on most definitions -- and a set of relationships.

Yes, the heart of my faith is my relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Even an atheist should understand that even a common historical figure whom one cherishes-- say, Gandhi -- can become so important in one's life that he or she seems like an active participant in one's decision-making.  This was the nub of the ancient idea of discipleship.  The ancients were asking "What would Socrates do?" for centuries after he did anything.  Why should an atheist sneer at that?  Surely a psychologist should understand the concept of mimesis? 

As a Christian, I think God hears my prayers.  Something I almost wish He didn't see so clearly into my soul.  Call me delusional, if you like.  But I am conscious of He with whom I have to deal.  Tarico should read and contemplate Francis Thompson's poem the Hound of Heaven, if she wishes to understand this concept from the inside, as one would expect an open-minded psychologist to try to do.

2. That’s the OLD Testament. In my childhood Bible, the Old Testament is bound together with the New Testament in a gold-stamped blue leather cover with these words on the title page, “The words of Scripture as originally penned in the Hebrew and Greek . . . are the eternal Word of God.” This statement is followed by a verse from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever (Is 40:8).

To Evangelicals, the Old Testament is the timeless Word of God, except when the vile atrocities described there become inconvenient or when people quote horrible verses—say those that demean women, endorse slavery, condemn homosexuality and shellfish eating, promote the idea of Chosen bloodlines, or make statements that are scientific nonsense. Then it’s just the Old Testament, and Evangelicals pull out all kinds of fancy “supersessionist” language to explain that those verses don’t really count because of the “new covenant” or the “Dispensation of Grace.” But just try suggesting that a Bible believer take the Old Testament out of the Holy Bible. 

What does Tarico imagine the words "old" and "new" mean?

I am delighted that the Old Testament is part of the Bible, and that the Church has rightly resisted attempts to ditch the Jewish Scriptures.  But yes, Jesus came to "fulfill."  And when he fulfilled Jewish prophecies, ancient promises, subtle hints of hope, images and pictures throughout Jewish history, the world began to be renewed.

I included many passages from the Old Testament in the first volume of my Foundations of World Literature.  The stories of creation, of God's calling on Abraham and his family, of the Exodus, of Ruth and David and Solomon, the great prophetic writings, the Psalms and poetry, the epic and gut-wrenching poem Job, are among the richest treasures of human literature.  Anyone who can't see that, is a fool.  Anyone who wished their Bible were rid of such treasures, should not work in sales. 

But how the OT and the NT relate is a complex theological question, which Christians answer in a variety of ways. 

My own preferred perspective is what the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff called "appropriated discourse."  People said and wrote things -- often great things -- which God divinely appointed and drew up into His revelation.  In the larger context of that revelation, particular passages often retrospectively acquired new meanings.

Especially in light of Jesus Christ.

Now I don't think the Old Testament as a whole "demeans women."  In fact, MOST women in the Old Testament are depicted as heroic to some degree.  I have demonstrated that in this forum. 

But what is strange about Christians reading the Jewish Scriptures in light of Jesus Christ, whom we regard as their center?  What do you think the first six letters of "Christian" refer to? 

Apparently what Tarico warns against with the vulgar term "mindfuck" is what the rest of us would call "complexity."

She wishes Christians to either blindly embrace or fully disavow all the Old Testament.  Either she is simple-minded, or demands that Christians comply with her vision of us as simple-minded.  She wants to get a win on the cheap, with a sneer, rather than have to deal with thousands of years of nuanced and insightful Christian thought about a complex and deeply fascinating subject.

The relationship between Christian thought and insights which various pre-Christian cultures emphasized is a subject I wrote about for my PhD.  It is hard to imagine Tarico facing up to the thought of, say, N. T. Wright, on how the NT and OT relate, without her poor little head exploding.  Her comments on the subject are embarrassingly crude, vulgar, and misinformed.

3. Yes, no, maybe. God answers prayer. Except when he doesn’t. The New Testament says, And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive  (Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24). But everybody knows that in the real world that doesn’t happen. Christians face bankruptcies and bad test scores and death at the same rate as other people. God answers prayer at the margins of statistical significance, if at all—even when parents are asking for their kids to get healed from cancer, or kids are pleading that parents stop hitting them.

How does one explain that? The age-old Christian answer has been that when your prayers aren’t answered you should doubt yourself rather than God, assuming that your faith was too weak or you wanted something you shouldn’t. But Evangelicals have come up with something even more clever: God does always answer! It’s just that he sometimes says no, or maybe, instead of yes. That ask anything and it shall be done Bible verse really meant, ask selectively and he might say yes.

Clever of modern evangelicals to come up with that "yes, no or maybe" thing!  Nice ad hoc rationalization!

Only our model, Jesus Christ, asked 2000 years ago that the cup be passed, and God said, "No."  Jesus replied, "Not my will, but yours, be done."  And Paul, his most effective preacher, said he'd prayed several times that some trouble or injury be taken from him, and was told in response, "My strength is made perfect in weakness."

So apparently getting told "no" is not a new thing, even for Jesus Christ himself, or his top surrogate. 

Does God only answer prayers "at the margins of statistical significance?"  Some of the prayers I've seen Him answer were pretty statistically significant.  And people I trust relate even more remarkable answers to prayer.

4. Be selfless for your own sake. If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all, say the lyrics to one Christian song. Got that? “If you want to be great,” not “if you want to do the most good in the world.” Granted, learn to be the servant of all beats some other paths people take when they seek status, but it is a path to status nonetheless, which is why the church is full of self-proclaimed servant leaders who actually aspire to great man or woman status.

Like the people who astounded G. K. Chesterton with the same fault, Tarico actually attacks a paradox here for being paradoxical!  If you fail to grasp the purpose of this rhetorical device (I teach literature, and try to make it clear), please keep quiet when one of the world's great masters of paradox is playing his fiddle.  Your silence would be less painful for all concerned.

5. Christianity is humble. According to Catholic theology, pride is one of the seven deadly sins. Evangelical preachers tell us it was Satan’s original sin. Pride cometh before the fall, so humble yourself before God. Couple this claim about humility with the idea that you should preach [your version of] the gospel to every creature—and things get turned inside out and upside down.

Famed Puritan hellfire-and-brimstone minister Jonathan Edwards said, “We must view humility as one of the most essential things that characterizes true Christianity.” Edwards also expounded with righteous certitude about the torments of the wicked in hell—wicked meaning anyone who didn’t share his Puritan beliefs.

Anyone who has spent much time in an Evangelical church community knows that superior humility can be a powerful form of one-upmanship. But competitive humility aside, what could possibly be more arrogant than thinking the universe was made for mankind, that only we bipedal primates are made in the image of God, that all other sentient beings are here for us to use, that you happened to be born into the one true faith among the tens of thousands of false ones, and that the force that created the laws of physics wants a personal relationship with you. 

Which logical fallacy does Tarico display first in this three paragraph argument?  If you said "straw man," you guessed (or saw) right: the very first three words! 

"Christianity" is not humble, of course.  That is a gross act of reification and confusion.  Christians are supposed to be humble.

Chesterton warned against lodging the organ of humility in the wrong place: this is what he meant.  Humility should be about our selves, not about truth we perceive. 

"God created man in His image, male and female He created them."

"For God so loved the world . . . "

These are statements about reality from within the Christian worldview.  Statements of alleged fact: "The universe began with a bang 3.8 billion years ago;" "Albany is the capital of New York State;" or even "I am king of the world!" are best evaluated first as "true" or "false." 

It is false, for instance, that Christians believe that the universe "was made for mankind."  Where did Tarico get that idea?  Did she make it up?  Or did she hear it from some heretic? 

I suspect Edwards was mistaken in some of his ideas about hell.  But why should I assume that his error (if it was an error) arose from pride?  It might have arisen from the humility of taking Scriptures at face value, or listening to Reformed teachers who exposited Calvinism before him. 

I'm happy to believe, if Tarico wishes, that whales also display the image of God in some sense -- an impressionistic sense, Chesterton (who answered most of what a Tarico offers in the way of arguments long ago) suggested.   My Chinese students, encountering Genesis for the first time, can usually come up with some ways in which human beings resemble the theistic idea of God which whales do not: greater rationality and creativity, for instance.  It's a pity that in her reactionary haste to make Christianity look foolish, she makes herself look so foolish as to so badly underperform against 16 year old pagans learning how to read literature for the first time, and in a foreign tongue, at that. 

6. Christianity isn’t sexist; God just has different intentions and rules for men and women. Just because in the Old Testament God (identified by the male pronoun) makes man first, puts men in charge (male headship), gives men the right to barter women and take them as war booty doesn’t mean they’re unequal. Just because the New Testament forbids women to speak in church, tells them to cover their heads and submit to men, and excludes them from leadership positions doesn’t mean that women are to men!

The Bible may be rife with stories with predominantly male protagonists. It may show women competing to have sons. Genealogies may be determined by paternity. God may convey his word exclusively through male writers and may take the form of a male human. But that doesn’t mean men and women are unequal! They’re just “different.” All of those generations of Patriarchs and Church Fathers and Reformers and Preachers who said vile things about women—they just misunderstood the Bible’s message on this point.

As I have shown in these pages in great detail, this is a grotesque and dishonest misrepresentation of how women are treated in the Bible.   

Hundreds of comments have been posted in response to my arguments.  I dare you to find any that overthrow my thesis that in fact, the Gospel of Jesus has liberated billions of women around the world.  (And the roots of that lie in the OT.) 

7. Believe and be saved. Right belief, according to Evangelicalism, is the toggle that sends people to heaven or hell—as if we could simply make ourselves believe whatever we want, regardless of the evidence, and as if the ability to do so were a virtue. Right belief makes you one of the Righteous. Wrong belief makes you one of the Wicked. God may have given you the ability to think, but you follow logic and evidence where they lead only at your own eternal peril. If you don’t believe, it’s because you secretly just don’t want to.

Granted we all are prone to a greater or lesser degree, to what psychologists call “motivated belief,” meaning we have a tendency to selectively seek evidence for things we either want to be true or, more rarely, fear to be true. But this is hardly a sign of robust character or moral virtue. Quite the opposite.

Another simplistic straw man.

Now I happen to agree that many evangelicals over-emphasize faith.  But the faith they emphasize is not mere ascent to a set of propositions (unless they are heretics), but the act of faith referred to by the word "repentance."  Trust in God for good reasons, and acting on that trust, not merely coming to believe certain propositions.  "The devil believes, and trembles." 

I believe God has given Valerie Tarico the "ability to think" too -- that is why I think humans are made in the Image of God more than snow leopards or sea urchins.  But see, above, how she uses that ability to "fuck up her own mind" (her expression) rather than to seek truth. 

I don't claim to know anything about Tarico's eternal destination.  But one can see in play even in this short article, the propensity of will that cuts her off from her Creator, rationalizing and justifying the doors she is slamming and locking from the inside with weak excuses that would only fool someone greatly desiring to be hoodwinked. 

8. God loves you and he’ll send you to hell. And once you die, it’s all irreversible. George Carlin put it best: Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man … living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you. He loves you and he needs money.

OK, Carlin didn’t have his theology right, at least not from an Evangelical standpoint. You don’t go to hell for violating the Ten Commandments. You go to hell for not accepting Jesus as your savior. But yeah, he loves you, loves you, loves you, and if you don’t love him back and worship him and accept his gift of forgiveness for your imperfection, he’s going to torture you forever. Wrap your brain around that definition of love.

Or deal with Christian theology in a mature form, say by reading C. S. Lewis (the intellectual pope to the American evangelical movement)? 

No.  Too hard.  Let's stick with childish caricatures instead.

9. Free choice under duress. Why is the world full of sin and suffering if God is all powerful and all good? Because he wanted us to worship him of our own free will. He loves us too much to force us, so we had to be able to choose—so the story goes.

But, but, if what he wanted was love and adoration, freely given, then why did he entice us with promises of heaven and threaten us with eternal torture? Can someone really love you if you demand their love at gunpoint? 

This is actually a good question.  (If only it were a question, instead of a "gotcha" argument.)  But one would think the answer would not be hard to find, for a psychologist with experience of many kinds of people.

M. Scott Peck claimed that people could be sorted into four distinct stages of spiritual advance.  I'll explain his idea in my own words:

(1) Selfish, narcissistic stage, in which you take what you can get with no moral concern.

(2) Authoritarian stage, in which the narcissist submits to external force (Church, Army, Parent, Police).  Being in submission, he or she becomes externally moral, and may begin to internalize the moral teachings of his or her authority.

(3) Seeking stage.  The seeker tires of rigid control, become free-thinkers, and wander the world seeking truth. Moral truth is internalized. 

(4) Synthetic stage.  The person at this stage regains religious faith, but not because of mere external fear of authority, and retains the questioning spirit of stage (3). 

As even Hinduism and Buddhism have long recognized, it should be obvious that if God is wiser than, say, Dr. Tarico, He must know that people have reached different spiritual stages in their journeys, and therefore "appropriate means" must be used to advance them.

For a few, appealing directly to the love of God might be most effective.  And experiencing the joy of knowing God is the long-term goal for everyone.

But in the meanwhile, we also need to retrain sociopaths like the young David Wood.  To restrain a sociopath, sometimes you might need a two-by-four. 

10. Lean not unto your own understanding. Faith is just believing. Trust and obey. Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong (1 Corinthians 16:13). The fool has said in his heart there is no God (Psalm 14:1).

The idea that your own mind, logic, and the evidence in the world around you is not to be trusted may be Evangelicalism’s biggest mindfuck, because it is subtext in all the others. Any doubts are just evidence that your mind (and basic human decency) are shaky. Since doubt is a sign of weak faith—and sometimes even direct from the devil—you should never ever trust what you think, feel, see or experience over what the Bible says and the Church teaches. Walk by faith, not by sight. Stop asking questions!

Faith is NOT "just believing."  The devil does that, and trembles.  Tarico begins with devilish heresy, so one can't expect much from this item.

One can't blame her, I suppose.  She says evangelicalism is a series of "mindfucks," and says she used to be an evangelical.  The present state of her mind is, perhaps, the strongest evidence for her complaint that she has yet produced.

"Stop asking questions?"  No one ever, ever told me that.  And I have been a Christian, in at least a rudimentary, Sunday School sense, for more than half a decade. 

I have been asking questions, and intend to keep asking them.  The Christian faith gives me freedom to find answers, and the surprising feeling (again like Chesterton) that many who claim to love facts, evidence, and rational thought, flee it like rats from a sinking ship in practice.

Christian faith is built upon sound reasoning and credible evidence.  The entire Bible makes that clear, as have Christians from the very beginning.  We offered a fair amount of evidence for that in a book called True Reason.  

On the other hand, Tarico's article does seem to provide strong prima facia evidence that something, whether in her evangelical youth or later, has been messing with her sense of proportion and clarity of reasoning.  So there is that.