As I said in a different post, I skipped 2 Chronicles because it is basically just an overview of what has already happened. As such, I will be starting back up with Ezra.
Ezra begins with Cyrus, the Persian king, helping the exiled Israelites return to Israel. “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing.” Yet another example of God’s apparent disregard of freewill. Why couldn’t Cyrus make his own decision about whether or not the temple should be rebuilt? Why does God have to “move his heart”? Cyrus then says “‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’” Um, Cyrus wasn’t an Israelite. The God of the Bible was not his god. While he likely would have believed that a god or gods made it possible for him to rule such a vast empire, it is unlikely that he would have told the Israelites that it was their god who gave him is power. He was, however, known to be a fairly liberal ruler. It is not strange that he would have allowed the Israelites to rebuild their temple. After all, he gave members of other religious groups equal freedom.
The people then returned to Israel. The Bible then spends a good deal of time focusing on how the temple is built, what is in it, and the process of sacrificing. It states that “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day. After that, they presented the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred festivals of the Lord, as well as those brought as freewill offerings to the Lord. On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid.” This bit isn’t really all that interesting, other than the claim that they were afraid, which makes sense given the circumstances. But then it is stated that the priests say “He is good;/his love toward Israel endures forever.” But this can’t be true. After all, weren’t they exiles because God got mad at them and let them get taken over? How is that loving? Especially when then weren’t doing anything shocking or even unexpected for the time. It is then said that “When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, ‘Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.’ But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, ‘You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.’” How do the Israelites know that those people were enemies? How do they know that they didn’t legitimately want to help with the temple? This makes the Israelites look like jerks.
In order to stop the Israelites from building their temple (though I don’t really know why anybody would be so concerned about another minority religion building a temple in a time when temples were a dime a dozen), some people apparently wrote to the king: “Furthermore, the king should know that if this city is built and its walls are restored, no more taxes, tribute or duty will be paid, and eventually the royal revenues will suffer. Now since we are under obligation to the palace and it is not proper for us to see the king dishonoured, we are sending this message to inform the king, so that a search may be made in the archives of your predecessors. In these records you will find that this city is a rebellious city, troublesome to kings and provinces, a place with a long history of sedition. That is why this city was destroyed. We inform the king that if this city is built and its walls are restored, you will be left with nothing in Trans-Euphrates.” This sounds like modern day fear-monguring: “If taxes are raised, businesses will go bankrupt and the economy will enter a recession!” It’s silly and not worth considering. The king apparently replies “The letter you sent us has been read and translated in my presence. I issued an order and a search was made, and it was found that this city has a long history of revolt against kings and has been a place of rebellion and sedition. Jerusalem has had powerful kings ruling over the whole of Trans-Euphrates, and taxes, tribute and duty were paid to them. Now issue an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order. Be careful not to neglect this matter. Why let this threat grow, to the detriment of the royal interests?” Really? You can’t just, I don’t know, go to the Israelites and say “Hey, I know you want to be independent, but you’re still living in our Empire. Here’s the deal: you pay taxes to us and our army protects you from attacks. Deal?” Seriously, at no point do they discuss any sort of give and take. That is basic policy from all ages. The Bible goes on to say “As soon as the copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read to Rehum and Shimshai the secretary and their associates, they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them by force to stop. Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.” Uh huh. But why? Where is the logic in any of this? Does anybody else smell a persecution complex here?
The Bible then goes on to mention a prophecy: “Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Joshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, supporting them. At that time Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates went to them and asked, ‘Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and to finish it?’ They also asked, ‘What are the names of those who are constructing this building?’ But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received.” Is there any evidence to show that this prophecy actually happened? Or that it happened before the temple’s completion? Why should I believe that this is a legitimate prophecy?
Later on, the Israelites begins building the temple again. And again people have an issue with it. Once again, they write to the king: “The king should know that we went to the district of Judah, to the temple of the great God. The people are building it with large stones and placing the timbers in the walls. The work is being carried on with diligence and is making rapid progress under their direction. We questioned the elders and asked them, ‘Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and to finish it?’ We also asked them their names, so that we could write down the names of their leaders for your information. This is the answer they gave us: ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the temple that was built many years ago, one that a great king of Israel built and finished. But because our ancestors angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar the Chaldean, king of Babylon, who destroyed this temple and deported the people to Babylon. However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to rebuild this house of God. He even removed from the temple of Babylon the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to the temple in Babylon. Then King Cyrus gave them to a man named Sheshbazzar, whom he had appointed governor, and he told him, ‘Take these articles and go and deposit them in the temple in Jerusalem. And rebuild the house of God on its site.’ So this Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God in Jerusalem. From that day to the present it has been under construction but is not yet finished.’ Now if it pleases the king, let a search be made in the royal archives of Babylon to see if King Cyrus did in fact issue a decree to rebuild this house of God in Jerusalem. Then let the king send us his decision in this matter.” Okay, but why is this temple such an issue? The Bible goes on to say “King Darius then issued an order, and they searched in the archives stored in the treasury at Babylon. A scroll was found in the citadel of Ecbatana in the province of Media, and this was written on it: Memorandum: In the first year of King Cyrus, the king issued a decree concerning the temple of God in Jerusalem: Let the temple be rebuilt as a place to present sacrifices, and let its foundations be laid. It is to be sixty cubits high and sixty cubits wide, with three courses of large stones and one of timbers. The costs are to be paid by the royal treasury. Also, the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, are to be returned to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; they are to be deposited in the house of God. Now then, Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and you other officials of that province, stay away from there. Do not interfere with the work on this temple of God. Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site. Moreover, I hereby decree what you are to do for these elders of the Jews in the construction of this house of God: Their expenses are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop. Whatever is needed—young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and olive oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem—must be given them daily without fail, so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons. Furthermore, I decree that if anyone defies this edict, a beam is to be pulled from their house and they are to be impaled on it. And for this crime their house is to be made a pile of rubble. May God, who has caused his Name to dwell there, overthrow any king or people who lifts a hand to change this decree or to destroy this temple in Jerusalem. I Darius have decreed it. Let it be carried out with diligence.” If a deal has been made, then looking for the recording of the deal makes sense, but how did the deal get forgotten about so quickly? And why was Darius so willing to let the Israelites have their temple? If he had wanted to, he could have just forced them to stop building again.
Once the temple is built, we are finally introduced to the man for whom the book is named. The Bible begins by boring us with more names that mean nothing: “After these things, during the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah, the son of Shallum, the son of Zadok, the son of Ahitub, the son of Amariah, the son of Azariah, the son of Meraioth, the son of Zerahiah, the son of Uzzi, the son of Bukki, the son of Abishua, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the chief priest— this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him. Some of the Israelites, including priests, Levites, musicians, gatekeepers and temple servants, also came up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king. He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him. For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.” Okay, so he was a priest. Ezra says “Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honour to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favour to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.” Then there are more lists of names.
Now it all shifts from third to first person with no explanation: “There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, ‘The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.’ So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer. Then I set apart twelve of the leading priests, namely, Sherebiah, Hashabiah and ten of their brothers, and I weighed out to them the offering of silver and gold and the articles that the king, his advisers, his officials and all Israel present there had donated for the house of our God. I weighed out to them 650 talents of silver, silver articles weighing 100 talents, 100 talents of gold, 20 bowls of gold valued at 1,000 darics, and two fine articles of polished bronze, as precious as gold.”
Once again, the focus turns to how horrible the Israelites are: “After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, ‘The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.’ When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice. Then, at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my self-abasement, with my tunic and cloak torn, and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to theLord my God and prayed ‘I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today. But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem. But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.’ What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved and have given us a remnant like this. Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.’” Well he certainly has a flare for the dramatic. Also, does God actually know that the Israelites are marrying women from different cultures? Because, if he does, he doesn’t seem to care. Why would he let them rebuild the temple if they are still being disobedient? Wasn’t that the issue in the first place? It goes on to say of Ezra “While he was there, he ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.”
The book of Ezra finishes with more lists of names, this time they are the names of every man who married a non-Israelite women. Given the number of Israelites there presumably are, the list isn’t very long: “Among the descendants of the priests, the following had married foreign women: From the descendants of Joshua son of Jozadak, and his brothers: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib and Gedaliah. (They all gave their hands in pledge to put away their wives, and for their guilt they each presented a ram from the flock as a guilt offering.) From the descendants of Immer: Hanani and Zebadiah. From the descendants of Harim: Maaseiah, Elijah, Shemaiah, Jehiel and Uzziah. From the descendants of Pashhur: Elioenai, Maaseiah, Ishmael, Nethanel, Jozabad and Elasah. Among the Levites: Jozabad, Shimei, Kelaiah (that is, Kelita), Pethahiah, Judah and Eliezer. From the musicians: Eliashib. From the gatekeepers: Shallum, Telem and Uri. And among the other Israelites: From the descendants of Parosh: Ramiah, Izziah, Malkijah, Mijamin, Eleazar, Malkijah and Benaiah. From the descendants of Elam: Mattaniah, Zechariah, Jehiel, Abdi, Jeremoth and Elijah. From the descendants of Zattu: Elioenai, Eliashib, Mattaniah, Jeremoth, Zabad and Aziza. From the descendants of Bebai: Jehohanan, Hananiah, Zabbai and Athlai. From the descendants of Bani: Meshullam, Malluk, Adaiah, Jashub, Sheal and Jeremoth…All these had married foreign women, and some of them had children by these wives.” Why does it matter if they had children? Given that fathers were the head of the household, couldn’t they ensure that the children grow up to be good little Israelites?
Tag Archives: belief
As I said in a different post, I skipped 2 Chronicles because it is basically just an overview of what has already happened. As such, I will be starting back up with Ezra.
So life has been quite busy for us lately. I have been working and trying to get some writing edited. Withteeth has been testing out a job as well. As such, it has been difficult for us to find time to publish posts. However, I do have some Bible posts that I’ve been working on. I’ll start publishing those in a few days.
But first I want to talk about the conference we were at this weekend. Gateway to Reason was a first time conference that took place this weekend in St. Louis, Missouri. It was probably the best organized conference that we have been to. I would definitely recommend looking into this conference next year if you are able to make your way to St. Louis for it. It was fairly cheep as far as secular/skeptic conferences are concerned and it had a large number of speakers. Russell Glasser, Matt Dillihunty, Aron Ra, Vyckie Garrison, and David Fitzgerald are just a few of the many speakers who presented a talk.
But it’s Hemant Mehta’s talk that I want to really discuss. His talk took place this afternoon. Hemant’s talk was about how atheists are failing to attract members and convince people to give up their religion. He said that there are a number of things that churches do better than atheist groups: First, churches really do give their members a sense of purpose. They send people on mission trips, they encourage people to volunteer, and they get people thinking about how to solve real world issues that affect the members of the church. Atheist groups don’t do these things. As such, we can’t get people to join us. People want to feel as though their local group is for something. They want to feel as though their is a purpose in attending that group. So how do we give people that purpose? Second, Churches offer community. Atheist groups do offer community, but our communities are makeshift. Christians will take care of their people. If someone loses their job, Christian groups will help that person until they are back on their feet. Atheist groups don’t do that kind of thing. This means that asking someone to leave their church is asking them to leave their safety net. Why would they do that? How can we better protect each other and offer that safety net? Third, the church is very good at death. They have a good story. A comforting story. We don’t have that. We don’t offer the same inspiration. So how can we inspire people to not fear death? Fourth, Christians have great messengers. They have a terrible message, but their messengers are great. Atheists have terrible messengers. Our messengers insult and offend the people they are trying to deconvert. Our messengers ignore emotion and aren’t very good storytellers. The strength of our message is irrelevant if we can’t catch the peoples attention to share it. So how do we improve our messengers? Hement’s point is that we need to fix the way that atheists bring people in. So how do we do this? Is Hement right or is he completely off base? Does it matter?
So things have been quite busy lately. I’ve been working and Withteeth has been looking for a job. Unfortunately, that has meant that the blog has gotten pushed aside for a while. However, I have gotten back into my reading of the Bible. I’m still in 2 Corinthians, which is essentially and overview, so I don’t have anything interesting to write about it yet, but I am planning to get back into writing my Bible overview soon.
But for now I have a few comments to share from my first month of work. Last week I had a lady tell me that I was sent to her by God to help her find some books for her grandsons. I happened to be in the right area and asked her if she needed help, and she wasn’t used to our store, so she told me that I had been sent. It turned out that she wanted some children’s Bibles for her grandsons. I thought it was kind of funny because a) I’m and atheist and it seems strange that God would send me over a Christian, and b) why would God send anybody to help one lady of 7 billion humans find two books? Chances are the grandsons are already being raised Christian, and it’s unlikely the purchasing of the two books would have any real affect on their beliefs, so why would God care?
Yesterday another customer invited me to a Bible study after telling me which Bible she prefers. I just happened to walk into the same section she was in with her daughters when the conversation occurred. As an employee, there isn’t a whole lot more than I can do besides smile and nod.
I bring these stories up because they are two of five incidences that have taken place in the last couple of weeks. It seems as though people just assume I’m Christian. This has gotten me thinking about two things: First, this assumption suggests a level of privilege granted to Christians that others don’t get to share. Christians can just assume that the person they are talking to is a Christian without having to fear any negative repercussion (and they are even right fairly regularly). In North America, we live in a society where people think highly of Christians for no reason other than that they are Christians. People don’t generally get offended when they are mistaken for being a Christian, and Christians have a lot of privileges that other groups don’t have (like the ability to walk down the street and find a church without much difficulty, or the ability to find curriculum that cater to them so that they can homeschool their children). I can’t assume that any given person is an atheist, and I risk offending people if I do make the assumption. Second, how can I as an atheist and an employee respond to these assumptions? Like I’ve said, so far all I’ve done is smile and nod, but I’m not really a fan of that approach. I don’t want people to just assume I’m a Christian, but I can’t really represent atheism at my job. Like everybody else, I have to put my beliefs on hold and just focus on the customer. There is no easy answer, but I wish that people wouldn’t assume. Not everybody is a Christian.
Here is another video that I just watched. Keep in mind that this video comes from an Abrahamic perspective (all those interviewed were either Christian, Jewish, or Muslim). I am interested in hearing your views on this documentary. Is it accurate or inaccurate? What are its best and worse points? Why do you agree or disagree with the documentary?
I watched this documentary yesterday and I thought it would make for a great discussion. Since we have both Christians (and I’m sure some theists who are not Christian) and atheists following this blog, I thought it might be worthwhile to see what you lot have to say about this documentary.
If you have the time, please watch the documentary and tell us your thoughts on it in the comment section.
As many of you know, last summer I began to look into theology. Now that I’m no longer in school, I have gotten back into it. This had led me to think about the idea that the Bible is inerrant. As an atheist, I obviously don’t believe that this is true, but most Christians do believe that the Bible is inerrant. This is incredibly problematic.
When I talk to Christians about their belief in God, or my non-belief, the Bible inevitably comes up. I don’t believe in God because I see no evidence to suggest that God exists. I want evidence before I’m willing to commit to a belief. Christians, however, often believe that they have the evidence. The problem is this evidence is not convincing to a non-Christian. Why? Because it tends to presuppose the inerrancy of the Bible. This is also a major problem with the theology I have read. If you already accept that the Bible is inerrant, then I’m sure the arguments presented are fairly convincing. But, if you already accept that the Bible is inerrant, then you are probably already a Christian and you probably don’t need the arguments to convince you of anything. But for someone who does not accept the Bible as inerrant, the conversation quickly becomes frustrating and circular because a major presupposition is being ignored that prevents the conversation fro getting anywhere.
As I’ve said in other posts, if you want to provide evidence to support the Bible (assuming your goal is to convince them that you are correct) to someone who does not accept the Bible, then you cannot use the Bible as your evidence. The Bible cannot be evidence of the Bible. Why? Because someone who is not a Christian does not agree with your premise that the Bible is inerrant, therefore, using the Bible to prove the Bible is no different that using Harry Potter to prove Harry Potter. You as a Christian may disagree with this, but you do not need to be convinced of your own beliefs. This means one of two things: either the Christian needs to be willing to put aside their belief that the Bible is inerrant for the sake of the conversation, or a discussion about Biblical inerrancy needs to be had before the conversation can go any deeper. This is the only way I can see the conversation not turning into a frustrating mess where neither party understands the other.
I bring this up because a lot of the Christians who have commented on earlier posts seem to be unwilling or unable to grasp the idea that we do not accept the Bible as inerrant. We have ended up getting into a number of circular arguments because, when we say that the Bible is not evidence, or even that we do not see any evidence to support the Bible, we either have people throwing Bible verses at us, or we have people saying that we’re wrong because the Bible without getting any deeper than that. I honestly don’t know what anybody could possibly hope to get out of that other than simply shutting down any possibility for further discussion. As such, we ask that you take this into consideration before making such comments in the future.
Now that things have settled down and I’m feeling better, I think it’s about time to get back to the Atheism 101 posts. Since I talked about the Bible and Koran in the last two posts, I will now be talking about the Western religions as a whole.
The Western religions include many forms of Paganism (anything from western Europe and the Americas) and Judaism and Christianity (due to where the majority of their followers can be found). Scientology would also be included in this list. I will not discuss these religions separately here but as a whole.
So why don’t atheists agree with Western religion? Well, not all atheists don’t agree with the western religions. In fact, some atheists practice different forms of Paganism (actually, there are atheists who practice Christianity and Judaism too). Many of them do so because they enjoy the culture and the traditions even though they don’t believe in the gods. However, many of the atheists who have a problem with western religion have a problem because of the institutions involved. This isn’t so much the case with Paganism, since Pagans don’t really have any power in our society. However, a lot of religious institutions use their status as religious to unfairly regulate the actions of people, including those who aren’t a part of the religion. A number of religious institutions have also caused a lot of harm. Both Scientology and some forms of Christianity have been accused of holding people, generally children, against their will. Children have been abused and killed at the direction of those with power within a religion. People have been conned out of their money and been made to feel guilty for things that aren’t necessarily wrong. And religious institutions have created wars. Those things tend to make atheists uncomfortable with the power of religious institutions. Most atheists are less concerned with people simply holding to one of these belief systems, but we do view them as false. It is the fact that we believe religions (or rather, belief in gods) are false that cause a number of atheists to criticise believers, because they believe that the believers are either being conned into believing a falsehood or are willingly believing a falsehood (sound familiar?).
On a side note, it is the fact that atheists criticise believers for believing what we believe to be false that has led me to think of atheism as more than simply a lack of belief in gods. If we merely lacked a belief, then we wouldn’t care what others believed. However, if we also actively believed that gods don’t exist, then we have a reason to care what others believe. As such, I define atheism as the belief that there are no gods, not as a lack of belief in gods.
Back to the main article. As I have already stated, not all atheists disagree with western religions. We just disagree with the gods premises. Some atheists like religion. Some atheists are religious. Some atheists wish they could be religious. Some merely don’t care about religion. Others feel annoyed at the power of religion. Some feel annoyed at the people who are religious. And others believe that religion should be gotten rid of. It all depends on the atheist.
Christians often say to Withteeth and I that we can’t properly understand Christianity intellectually and that we just have to believe. We often get told that we should simply believe. I can’t for the life of me figure out how anybody can think that this is a convincing argument.
Withteeth and I understand full well that our not being Christians means that we cannot fully comprehend Christianity as a believer would. However, we do not think that this is a handicap for us. After all, a Baptist and a Mormon both accept two different versions of Christianity (don’t tell me Mormons aren’t Christians: I don’t care), but that doesn’t mean that a Baptist can’t understand Mormonism. The Baptist will not understand the way the Mormon does, and will likely not understand why the Mormon is Mormon rather than a Baptist, but that doesn’t mean that the Baptist can have no understanding of Mormonism. So the argument that we can’t understand Christianity without being Christians is merely a way to invalidate the problems that we bring up without actually addressing them.
But let’s just think about this idea that we’re supposed to just not worry about the problems and ignore what we actually believe and force ourselves to accept Christianity. As I’ve said before, I never chose to be an atheist. I didn’t wake up one day and decide that I didn’t want to believe in God anymore. I also never chose to be a Christian when I was one. I was born to Christian parents. All my relatives were Christian. As far as I knew, all of my classmates were Christian. At the time, Christianity seemed self-evident. When I became an atheist it was because I could not force myself to continue believing in Christianity. I simply found it no longer convincing. I also didn’t find any other religion convincing. As such, I accepted that I was an atheist. But I’m supposed to ignore all that and just make myself believe? For those of you who are Christians, could you make yourself be an atheist? Could you simply chose not to believe in God and succeed? If so, do you truly believe?
A while ago, Withteeth and I discussed what it would look like to make ourselves believe and how successful we thought we would be. And, of course, how we thought people would respond. It all began when Ryan Bell announced that he was an atheist. I think both Christians and atheists reacted much the same when Ryan Bell first announced his intent to live a year without God. Many atheists wondered if he was some evangelical who was trying to prove that atheists can’t be moral or something, though many were convinced that he was in the process of deconverting (which, of course, ended up being the case). Many Christians, however, were afraid of what the experiment would mean for Ryan Bell. They were afraid that he was condemning himself to hell, or that he was lost and needed to be found. This reaction tells Withteeth and I a lot about what we could expect if we did something similar. If we decided that we were going to live as Christians for a year to fake it till we make it as a number of Christians have suggested, how would people react? Wouldn’t a number of Christians assume that we were being dishonest and deceitful? Would many Christians really welcome us with open arms knowing that we didn’t truly accept their beliefs? I’m sure a number of you would like to think that we would be welcomed in such a way, but we’ve dealt with the disdain that many Christians feel towards atheists. We’ve experienced the mistrust and the personal attacks. As such, I can’t imagine that we would be as accepted as Christians think we would be. We’d also have to deal with how other atheists would respond, but I’m not worried about that.
However, how people would react isn’t the real issue, it is merely another hurdle to our actually believing. Neither Withteeth nor I believe that we actually could believe. Even if we spent a year living as Christians, even if we read the Bible, went to church every week, joined church groups, and only associated with Christians, we do not think that we could “just” believe. Why? Because we don’t find it convincing. Surrounding ourselves with the community wouldn’t make Christianity convincing, it just makes it more difficult to leave Christianity once you already believe it. The only way Withteeth and I could ever believe would be to be convinced intellectually. As such, telling us to stop looking at Christianity intellectually, and that we can’t possibly understand it that way, isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s counter-productive (unless you just want us to stop questioning your beliefs, in that case it’s dishonest and I’d like to know what you’re so worried about). It’s unlikely that Withteeth and I will ever become Christians (or, in my case, become Christians again), but, if we were to do it, it would have to be because we were convinced through intellectual pursuit.
I can’t help but think that there needs to be a test before one can call themself a skeptic. It’s amazing how many people call themselves skeptics while having no critical thinking skills once so ever. This is the biggest reason I don’t really identify as a skeptic.
Today I received a reply to a comment I wrote on YouTube. The person considered themself a skeptic, but they couldn’t be bothered to supply any evidence to support their claim that masculinity and femininity are biological despite the fact that different cultures around the world hold to different ideas about what is masculine and what is feminine. Skeptics are supposed to be critical of all claims, and they are supposed to look at the evidence before they decide what is true, but so few actually do that. So many skeptics ignore the evidence and determine what they believe to be true on what society accepts, or who they hero-worship, or what they simply feel to be right. But that isn’t being skeptical.
Skepticism is a fine line to walk. It isn’t easy. But it also isn’t that difficult. Somebody says the sky is blue? Look up. Does the sky look blue? If yes, then do you have any reason to believe you are being deceived? No? Then the sky is blue. Obviously not everything is this simple, but it follows the same pattern. Someone says god exists? Can you see god? No? Then what other ways can we know something using our senses? Can we feel god? No? Can we smell god? No? Can we taste god? No? Can we hear god? No? Then how else can we find out if this claim is true? What evidence does the person making the claim have to offer? Can that evidence be verified? If not, then what does this say about the claim? If you can’t verify something using your own senses, and the evidence offered by the person making the claim isn’t verifiable, then the person’s claim can be dismissed.
But skeptics don’t generally have an issue applying this method to gods. It’s other things, more mundane things that skeptics want to be true, where they have difficulty applying their skepticism. But applying skepticism to one area does not a skeptic make. So where do skeptics fail?
Skeptics fail at applying skepticism to claims about sex and gender. It’s widely accepted that men are stronger than women. But how do we know if this is true? Can you see a man lift something that a woman can’t? Probably. But this is one man and one woman. So how do you turn the “this man can lift something that that woman can’t” claim into a “men are stronger than women” claim? First you need a lot of men and a lot of women. Then you need to compensate for weight difference. What do the results show? Obviously the average person doesn’t have time to do all of these experiments to determine what they should believe. Luckily scientists have done much of the research for us. So what have scientists found when they have done these studies? Are there studies that contradict each other? Does one debunk the other one? Are there meta-studies that explain why one is more accurate than the other? And are you sure your sources are good (ie. can you follow the source back to original research?)? Once you’ve done all that, you can be reasonably sure that your belief is accurate. However, to be a good skeptic, you can not say that you are a 100% certain that your belief is true. There is always a chance that you are wrong, and a true skeptic understands this. The problem with most so-called skeptics is they do not understand this.
So do you need to use the process given above to determine if your believes are true if you want to be a good skeptic? Yes. But it is not as daunting as it sounds. We all do the process to a certain degree, but most people don’t look at both sides of an argument, and they aren’t often open to changing their mind. The research doesn’t have to be done all at once. It can be done over the course of months or years, but both sides need to be considered, and you need to be open to changing your mind. That’s how we learn and grow.
So please, if you call yourself a skeptic, please make sure that you are as willing to apply your skepticism equally to all of your beliefs. And please make sure that you are willing to accept that you might be wrong. Because as soon as you say “I know x for certain” you cease being a skeptic. And as soon as you fail to apply the rigorous research needed to accept a belief you cease to be a good skeptic.