Friday, February 27, 2009

An Atheist Defense of Salt

An Atheist Defense of Salt
When speaking to His disciples and followers, Jesus said “you are the salt of the earth” in Matthew 5:13. At that point in time, salt was an essential preservative for meats as well as being a very popular food seasoning. One interpretation of this metaphor is that Jesus was telling His followers that their faith was important and essential to preserving and enhancing life on earth.

Undeniably, there are certain positive aspects about Christianity, and these aspects continue to add their salty seasoning to world. I do not posses God-like omniscience to know if the world would have been better off if Christianity was never born, given the heinous atrocities which have been committed in the name of God throughout history. However, I can understand and appreciate the present-day values of the faith. Here are some of the halite gems associated with Christianity:

Many Christian charities have been established to help the poor, the starving, the homeless, the sick, the orphans, the widows, and other people in great need.

Christianity has been a boon to the art world. The church, particularly during the European Middle Ages and the Renaissance, often spent its considerable wealth commissioning the very best artists in painting, music, craftsmanship, and design. Unlike the palaces of kings, awe-inspiring cathedrals were made accessible to the most base farmhand. Christian themes permeate to add enticing dimensions to stories, from Shakespeare's “Hamlet” to Brown's “The Da Vinci Code”.

A self-evident truth is that no man is “created” equally. Each person uniquely has different levels of skills and abilities. The majority of people are average performers by definition. When doing your best only yields mediocre results, it can destroy motivation. Yet the often-cited 1 Corinthians 10:31 verse challenges Christians to keep doing their best regardless: “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” This is an excellent work ethic.

As we continue to learn more about the ways the mind plays a role in health and healing, I believe that it's a distinct possibility that a person's faith can promote better overall health and can aid in the healing process of some people. Positive attitudes have been shown to have a positive impact on health and healing. So if someone feels blessed by God, or if someone honestly believes that God will heal them, such a belief would likely be beneficial to their health and healing.

God can be a life-extending companion. When an elderly man dies, it is not uncommon for his widow to die in a relatively short amount of time thereafter. While some of this may be attributed to simply the loss of a needed helper at that age, the effect of the loss of a loving companion can sap the will to live and promote the deterioration of life-sustaining functions. Love and companionship are so beneficial that even just having a pet can extend your life. Extrapolating that truth: if some people honestly believe that God is with them, communicating to them, and loving them, it seems reasonable that they could enjoy the same longevity benefits.

Church provides an excellent opportunity for fellowship and friendship, and to build relationships that last a lifetime.

Christianity provides mostly practical and abundantly available support and counseling. With its girth of episodes, the Bible contains a wealth of stories that can be related to circumstances which occur in our lives today. During regular church services, on television, on the radio, on the internet, or in church groups, these stories are presented in ways that people can identify with, and they help to inspire as well as help people to persevere through their struggles.

Associated with counseling, but also a topic of its own, Christianity promotes some good, Bible-based morals. It is true that sometimes the presented morals are “Bible-based” in the way a multi-gigahertz, dual-processor laptop computer is “based” on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, or in the way a rainbow is “based” on sunlight refracted off of a life-threatening, flood-yielding downpour. (Quite often, that loosely-based connection is a good thing! Take Bible-promoted slavery, for example.) Nonetheless, the Bible provides a starting point and an impetus to teach morals. The psychological factors with the Bible being a “third party” providing the basis for this teaching as well as being an authoritative source (even if that is self-described) helps to encourage adherence to these moral standards.

A common human performance tool which is used in many industries is called peer checking. Peer checking has someone besides yourself inspect what you have done or what you are about to do for errors. For those with a belief that God is watching them, they have an internal version of the peer check when they consider What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)? This is extra incentive to follow a morally correct path. (I personally use this mental tool often quite often, although, as opposed to asking WWJD, I just consider what my actions would appear like to a third person or headlining on the evening news.)

Finally, Christian groups sometimes provide a dissenting voice against science and philosophy when it's needed. Although it can be a bit of a two-edged sword, this stance of opposition helps to ensure that results, findings, and theories advanced by either science or philosophy are free of bias and actually do withstand the scientific method of scrutiny and any other appropriate due diligence.

Salt Is Good, in Moderation...
I feel that salt is actually an excellent metaphor for faith. Salt is made up of two dangerous elements: sodium, which reacts violently with water, and chlorine, which is poisonous. When combined in an ionic bond, these two elements form a chemical that can be benevolent and essential to mankind.

Faith, to some extent, is likewise made up of two dangerous elements; blind devotion, which abandons nature and logic when necessary, and dogmatic adhesion, clinging to the words written in an epoch of time long since past and believing them to be relevant today. When combined in moral and rational individuals, these two elements actually can form an attitude that is benevolent and enriching to mankind.

However, just like too much salt can kill you, too much faith can lead to disastrous consequences; crusades, inquisitions, 9/11, etc. The world is not, and may never be, ready to abandon faith. It is then the mission of the skeptic to help prevent people from getting too salty in their faith, to seed enough doubt that individual rationality helps to keep these disastrous tendencies in check, while preserving the more palatable and enriching benefits of that faith. As I see it, seeding this level of doubt is the greatest gift that skeptics can provide to the world within this generation.

The biggest challenge to this skeptical mission is presented by nations where the freedom of speech is restricted. Besides China, the majority of people living in places where speech (and in turn skepticism) is restricted are under Islamic dominion. Without the skeptic's voice of dilution, the briny solution of their faith can boil down to dangerous concentrations of sodium chloride; and we know all too well the result.

So, my fellow skeptics, I plead that we should join hands with our reasonably-salty, Christian neighbors on the international front in promoting world-wide freedom of religion, which fosters and necessitates the freedom of speech. When that door is opened, we will have the ability to make the world a better place; albeit ironically through the power of doubt. I don't have delusions of grandeur that such skeptical doubt will eliminate all extremist threats, but it should help to dilute the salt of faith to make toxic concentrations much less likely to occur.

Friday, February 20, 2009

God According to Genesis

How can you get to know God? Almost without exception, priests, preachers, and other spiritual leaders within Christianity will answer this question unanimously: pray, and spend time in God's Word, the Bible. The true nature of God is said to be revealed within its sacred pages. So now that we've gone through a series of studies on the book of Genesis, I thought this would be a good opportunity to highlight and review just what we've learned about God from His Word thus far.

God According to Genesis
Per Genesis, man was created in God's image. God formed man, Adam, from the dirt of the Earth and breathed into his nostrils to give Adam life. This not only trumps an evolutionary link, it also brings up questions about whether or not God is shaped like a man, and if so, does He have a belly button? ;-)

When Adam and Eve did not resist the temptation that God have given them (to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), God cursed them and banished them out of the Garden of Eden. God did not offer any opportunity for forgiveness.

From the story of Cain and Abel, we see that God may capriciously reject the honest, hard work that you do for Him according to His whim. At the same time, God may honor work done for Him which has no apparent value. If God rejects your work, He doesn't think you should be angry or upset about the rejection. Instead, you should just try something different to please Him.

Sometime later, God is upset to find that mankind has become thoroughly evil, which, contrary to His omniscience, seems to indicate that He didn't realize that mankind would end up that way. God is regretful that He made man, another blow to omniscience. As opposed to sending prophets or Jesus to earth to steer mankind back to righteousness, God decides that the best solution is to exterminate all of mankind through an epic, global Flood. But God finds Noah, who is the only non-evil man, so He decides to preserve Noah and his family through the Flood.

When the Flood waters recede, Noah kills some animals and burns their flesh, an odor that pleases God. Even though God knows that man will continue to be evil, God promises that He will never again kill all living creatures with a flood, and He makes rainbows as reminders of that promise. Of course, God has made an utterly meaningless promise, because not only do floods continue to kill people even in our time, but God could kill all living things in any number of ways, such as by famine.

At one point in time, all of mankind was working in harmony on one project; the Tower of Babel. The intent of the Tower was to reach Heaven with its top. Instead of God laughing off the impossibility of such a project, God voices His fear that a mankind united in one language could do anything they plan to do. So God scatters mankind around the globe and gives them all sorts of different (and primitive) languages. Given that communication, while not a guarantee, is an essential catalyst and foundation for peace, God seeded misunderstanding, turmoil, and war between different nations forever after with this act.

Through the stories of Abraham lying to Pharaoh and then to Abimelech about Sarah being his sister, we see how God seems to capriciously inflict punishments. For when Pharaoh took the miraculously beautiful senior citizen Sarah into his house, God inflicted him with horrible diseases. However, when Abimelech took the lovely, yet very, very elderly, Sarah into his house, God simply made Abimelech's women infertile.

In yet another blow to omniscience, when God had heard how wicked the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, God decides that He will go down to earth and see it for Himself to verify their grievous sins. He debates with Himself whether or not He should tell Abraham about how He was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. He does arrange for the only righteous man in the two cities, Lot, and his family to be removed from Sodom before its destruction. God turns Lot's wife into a pillar of salt when she looks back at the ensuing destruction.

As we will learn later in Deuteronomy, God rightfully finds the practice of making a burnt sacrifice of your son to be detestable. However, that doesn't stop God from telling Abraham to make a burnt sacrifice of his son Isaac. God instructs this morally corrupt act as a test of Abraham's obedience. Of course, if God were omniscient, He wouldn't need to test anyone. Fortunately He does stop Abraham from killing Isaac at the last moment, having Abraham make a burnt sacrifice of a ram instead.

When Jacob steals his brother Esau's blessing, we get our first insight as to how unscrupulous acts may play a part in fulfilling God's prophesies. Furthermore, we see that God is not opposed to blessing those that commit the unscrupulous acts.

In a story in which Jacob can't be considered completely innocent, Jacob gets tricked into marrying Leah instead of her sister Rachel. Eventually, Jacob marries Rachel too. Jacob shows love to Rachel, but not to Leah. In a classic case of displaced aggression, God punishes Rachel by making her infertile because He is angry that Jacob doesn't love Leah.

While working for his father-in-law, Laban, Jacob and Laban agree that Jacob's wages will be the motley colored flock. Jacob cheats Laban by successfully biasing the flock's offspring to be motley colored. When Laban sees that his own livestock wealth is declining, he changes Jacob's wages to more specific color pattern requirements. At this point, God steps in to ensure that the offspring produced match Jacob's prescribed wages, thereby making Laban poorer and Jacob richer. Implicitly, God approved of Jacob's plan to cheat Laban, perhaps as payback for making Jacob marry Leah.

After leaving Laban's house, Jacob spends a night alone while on the way to meet with his brother, Esau. At that time, God took on a human form and wrestled with Jacob. When God saw that He could not win the match, He fought dirty by permanently crippling Jacob, stabbing him in the hip socket. Upon pleading with Jacob to release Him, God renames Jacob to be Israel.

God chooses to execute Er because he is wicked. God then executes Onan for having sex with Er's widow but pulling out before ejaculation to avoid producing an heir for Er and thereby attempting to keep Er's inheritance. Er and Onan don't seem to rank as humanity's worst specimens, yet God kills them according to His whims.

For the grand finale, God manipulates Joseph's brothers to sell him into slavery to an Egyptian, which led to him being imprisoned in Pharaoh's jail, where God helps him interpret dreams. Later, when Pharaoh has a couple of bad dreams, God helps Joseph correctly interpret them. The interpretation is a warning that a seven year famine is coming. Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of making preparations for the famine. God brings on the severe, worldwide famine in which most people outside of the famine-prepared Egypt undoubtedly perish. Joseph's family moves to Egypt to survive. All the people in Egypt, except for the (polytheistic!) priests, end up selling their land and themselves into slavery of Pharaoh just for food to survive. The purpose of this amazingly horrible story was to fulfill a prophesy that God had made to Abraham; namely that Abraham's descendants would be enslaved and mistreated in a foreign country for four hundred years.

What We've Learned
God is probably man shaped (or perhaps more appropriately, man is God-shaped!). God will tempt you and punish you if you succumb to that temptation, and will not seek your forgiveness. God is capricious in His acceptance of deeds done for Him. God's omniscience is flawed. God is sorry that He made man. God likes the smell of burning flesh. God will make meaningless promises. God is afraid of mankind working altogether in harmony, and will take action to prevent such a peaceful collaboration. God is capricious in His punishments. God will test you in morally corrupt ways. God will fight dirty. And, finally, God will do absolutely anything to keep His promises and prophesies, including using evil methods and laying waste to the overwhelming majority of mankind, and the animal kingdom for that matter.

In short: Be afraid. Be very afraid. The fear of God is exactly what God wants you to have.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Swear Words

As a nation, we in the U.S.A. paradoxically have a policy of separation church and state while insisting on having certain people swear an oath on the Bible prior to fulfilling certain duties. The original intent behind the separation of church and state was to apply the learned lessons from history, such as the infamous tale of King Henry VIII of England. But those lessons don't extend to oaths. From the presidential office down to witnesses in trials, these oaths are ubiquitous in American culture.

Presumably, swearing on the Bible is supposed to remind people that their oaths are accountable to the Christian God, and that the consequences of breaking the oath would be eternal, regardless if the breaking of the oath was discovered during their lives. What's strange is that it doesn't take into account those people with different faiths, or without faith altogether.

With an upcoming summons for jury duty in my future, I will soon have to swear on the Bible to do my duty with honesty and integrity. Would Jesus approve of swearing on the Bible? What would Jesus do? We find out in this study.

Swear Words
Swearing an oath is an act that has been around since the dawn of history. It's an oddity of human nature that we place more credence on a vow, a swear, a promise, or an oath than we do when someone simply claims something. “I swear to tell the truth” seems to have more value than simply “I will tell the truth”.

In a sense, swearing an oath constitutes a verbal contract. Meanwhile, speaking the same words without the addition of swear words seems to merely imply the intent of the speaker, but it is not necessarily binding. Perhaps that's why we marvel when someone is “a man of his word” because he actual does what he says he will do, usually without the addition of “I swear”, “I promise”, etc. in his speech.

God has quite a bit to say about oaths in the Old Testament. Besides swearing promises to some of the Patriarchs and soliciting oaths from them at times, God also gives the Israelites through Moses several laws pertaining to vows and oaths; such as Leviticus 5:4 that warns about making careless oaths, and the entire chapter of Numbers 30 which largely describes how the oaths of women can be overturned by their husbands or fathers (excepting widows and divorced women, of course), and Deuteronomy 6:13 which says to make oaths in God's name, and Deuteronomy 23:21-23 reminding the Israelites how important it is to fulfill vows. Numbers 30:1-2 puts it fairly plainly:
Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: "This is what the LORD commands: When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said." NIV
Jesus does not agree with God's instructions on oaths. Just like we discussed in a previous post about several other issues, Jesus seems to disown and discredit what God had previously instructed. Jesus says in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:33-37:
"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the Evil One." NIV
In this single passage, Jesus appears to take no responsibility for the previously instructed law (which is misquoted by Jesus) despite that fact that He is God (as part of the Trinity), instructs people not to swear at all despite what God had commanded, and even goes so far as to claim that swearing or taking vows is from the Evil One, a.k.a. Satan! Jesus says that carrying out this part of God's Law is Satanic! If that's not an irreconcilable contradiction, I don't know what one is.

Curiously, this condemnation of swearing is not recorded in any of the other three Gospels. Yet there is an echo of the emphasis that at least one of the early Christian sects put on the prohibition of swearing that is recorded in James 5:12, included in an epistle sent to the dispersed Jews:
Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned. NIV
This line comes near the end of the epistle; the third paragraph from the end to be precise. So the “Above all” carries a fairly significant amount of weight in its meaning. It suggests that this teaching was of critical importance; this teaching which was left out of three of the Gospels and which directly contradicts God's Law.

So, from our study here, we find that Jesus would frown upon swearing an oath, but God would be quite happy with an oath as long as you were to fulfill it. Where does that leave me? I guess I'll have to flip a coin when I step into the jury box. :-)

Friday, February 6, 2009

God Playing God, Part 3

When a person is accused of acting like God, the implication is that they act according to their own set of morals, and typically treat people as disposable tools as opposed to people. They wield their power solely in their own interests without regard to the consequences to others. It's funny how such a negative connotation is derived from a Being that is supposedly the epitome Holiness; God.

In Part 1 of the story, Joseph goes from prisoner to second in command, with a mission to gather and distribute provisions for a seven-year-long famine that God had in His plans. At the conclusion of Part 1, the severe, worldwide famine had begun.

In Part 2 of the story, we find out that God can and does use evil to conduct His plans. We also get confirmation that the worldwide famine that God brought was so severe that it was only through God through Joseph was a remnant of humanity to be saved.

The trouble is that we still have not discovered a reason for this famine brought on by God. Did God have a plan for the famine besides the famine itself? We answer that question in this final part of the study.

God Playing God, Part 3
We are jumping to Genesis 47:13-31 as we conclude this study. To catch you up to speed, what followed Part 2 at the end of Genesis 45 continuing through to Genesis 47:12 was that Joseph's brothers returned home to tell their father of Joseph's status and to bring all of their family back to Egypt to live there per Joseph's request. The family arrives in Egypt, and Joseph tells them to tell Pharaoh that they are shepherds so that they can settle in Goshen, because shepherds are an abomination to Egyptians. They do tell Pharaoh that they are shepherds, and they happily settle in Goshen.

The severe, worldwide famine continued. There was no food in the entire region of Egypt and Canaan except what was in Pharaoh's reserve. In Genesis 47:13-17, we read how “all Egypt” claimed they were out of money, so Joseph has them exchange their livestock, “their horses, their sheep and goats, their cattle and donkeys”, for food that year.

This section reveals the story for what it is: fiction. For what is the likelihood that all Egypt ran out of money for grain at the same time? Are we to believe that Joseph individually scaled the cost of grain according to each family's wealth? Then there is the livestock. How probable is it that all the people of Egypt owned livestock, especially if (reportedly) shepherds were an abomination to the Egyptians?

After the livestock-for-food year had passed, the famine still continued. In Genesis 47:18-19, the people, poor and desperate, return to Joseph in unison and offer their land and their enslavement to Pharaoh in order to have food. In Genesis 47:20-22, we see:
So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh's, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other. However, he did not buy the land of the priests, because they received a regular allotment from Pharaoh and had food enough from the allotment Pharaoh gave them. That is why they did not sell their land. NIV
There it is!!! The reason God brought about this horrible, worldwide famine that killed untold numbers which could not make it to Egypt to sell everything they had for food! Unfortunately, God doesn't spell it out for you in His Word all in one place. You've got to go back to a prophesy revealed to Abraham by God in Genesis 15:13-16 for the divine reason:
Then the LORD said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure." NIV
All of the suffering was for a purpose. God's purpose. God's purpose of fulfilling His prophesy through any means necessary. God brought about this deadly famine to the whole world so that Abraham's descendants would be sold into slavery to Pharaoh so that prophesy would be true. God didn't care about the consequences to the rest of the world, as long as His prophesy got fulfilled.

The original source of this story is quite possibly based on the legendary Imhotep, who served under the Pharaoh Djoser in the Egyptian Third Dynasty. He supposedly was instrumental in helping Egypt to recover from a seven year famine, and that's just one of the many similarities.

Some claim that Joseph was actually the source of the Egyptian story for Imhotep. There are issues with that theory, such as the fact that Imhotep was remembered for several significant achievements which are not associated with Joseph, like being the founder of Egyptian medicine. Plus, it would seem that if God, through Joseph, had brought Egypt through the seven year famine, the impact of God's involvement probably would have made the Egyptians completely rethink their established deities and polytheism. There probably would have been converts from the top down, forever changing the face of Egyptian religion. Instead, we find that Imhotep got deified posthumously.