Dr. Schriner’s Case for Atheism

(I recently made a presentation at a Unitarian Universalist church in which I debated with myself about whether God exists. I’m posting it here, one speech at a time. For details, see my post from September 29. At this point “Pastor Chris” has already spoken in favor of deity, and here are opening remarks by “Dr. Schriner.”)

Thank you for your interest in this vital issue. Today I will show that there are no sound reasons for believing in an invisible cosmos-creator, and that there are good reasons to reject this theory. And my first argument is simple. The concept of God is superfluous. We don’t need it. People used to explain everything they didn’t understand by saying God did it, but this gives us a “god of the gaps.” As the gaps in our knowledge keep getting smaller, there is less and less reason for the God-hypothesis.

But even beyond this obvious point, I want to make a more daring claim. We can tell that there is no personal God by looking at the behavior of those who believe in God. Continue reading

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Reading the Bible at Random

[For the next few weeks this site will include items from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. Here’s a recent entry.]

This blog deals with the question of Biblical inerrancy. Is every verse of the Bible literally true, due to being inspired by a loving and all-knowing God? As I have indicated, I am impressed by the very large number of Bible passages that do not seem to have been inspired by such a deity.

Today I tried an experiment. I opened the Old Testament at random five times, and briefly scanned the text of the two facing pages before me. I was wondering how often I would find the sort of troubling statements I’ve discussed in earlier posts. The pages I opened to began with Leviticus 8:31, Judges 20:44, II Chronicles 15:7, Proverbs 8:35, and Jeremiah 39:4.

This experiment has its limitations, because to understand a Bible passage one has to read it in context. Old Testament material is often part of a long historical account of the nation of Israel and its relationship with surrounding nations and with God. But even without spending much time establishing context, it was clear that certain Biblical themes are very often encountered:

God wants us to carry out elaborate rituals to do penance for our sins. Carry out these rituals precisely “lest you die” (Leviticus 8:35). Example: “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not rend your clothes, lest you die….” (Leviticus 10:6).

The men of that era often slaughtered each other over theological and moral issues (Judges 20-21). God supposedly intervenes in such military campaigns (Judges 20:28). Physically seizing women and forcing them into marriage was considered acceptable behavior (Judges 21).

Those who do not accept the established religion shall “be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman” (II Chronicles 15:13).

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….” (Proverbs 9:10). “The fear of the Lord prolongs life….” (Proverbs 10:27).

Military invasions, victories, and defeats often result from obeying or disobeying divine commandments. “Because you sinned against the Lord, and did not obey his voice, this thing has come upon you” (Jeremiah 40:3).

I can imagine someone contending that all of these passages reflect God’s will, but it would be a bit of a challenge to make that case.

Try it yourself. Open the Old Testament five times and read the two pages revealed, seeing if you encounter statements that do not seem divinely inspired. And do the same for the New Testament. (I’m obviously not saying that every human action reported by Scripture is divinely inspired. The question is: Does it seem as if God wanted the text written as it was? Does God, for instance, want people who don’t believe in the correct theology to be put to death?)

Try it. Think about it. If you pray, pray about it. See what you discover.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Steven Pinker on Violence in the Bible

[For the next few weeks this site will include items from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. About once a week I will also post an entry that deals specifically with theism and atheism. Here’s my latest entry on the Bible blog.]

Steven Pinker, a distinguished professor of psychology, has written a critically acclaimed book called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker claims that despite modern media’s emphasis on war and mayhem, over the long run violence has actually decreased. He begins by discussing violence in ancient days, and on p. 10 he talks about the Bible:

“The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys.”

All of this is easy to prove. But then Pinker claims, more controversially, that in the Bible “Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all.” “Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people.”

Pinker mentions “atrocitologist” Matthew White who estimates that mass killings which “are specifically enumerated in the Bible” amount to roughly 1.2 million deaths, not counting those who died when God drowned every person on Earth except Noah and his family. White says that would add another 20 million!

How do you react to Pinker’s charges? Is he overdrawing this gory picture? Is the Bible’s picture of God inconsistent? Is there a contradiction between passages that show God as terrifying and aggressive and those that depict deity as loving and merciful? What do you think?

Roger Christan Schriner

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Making the Case for Atheism

In my posts of October 6 and 14, I described a recent presentation in which I argued for both sides of the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe. “Personal deity” was defined as a God who does things persons do, such as thinking, feeling, and communicating.

I began by assuming the role of Pastor Chris (Chris is my nickname) and in last week’s blog I quoted some of the Pastor’s remarks. I responded to them in the role of the atheist, Dr. Schriner. Here’s what he said:

This morning I will show that there are no sound reasons for believing in an invisible cosmos-creator, and that there are good reasons to reject this theory. And my first argument is simple. The concept of God is superfluous. People used to explain everything they didn’t understand by saying God did it, but this gives us a “god of the gaps.” As the gaps in our knowledge keep getting smaller, there is less and less reason for the God-hypothesis.

But even beyond this obvious point, I want to make a more daring claim. We can tell that there is no personal God by looking at the behavior of those who believe in God.

Pastor Chris based a lot of his case on the testimony of those who say they talk with God. So consider the possibility that God does communicate with us. If that’s so, then presumably this communication would be helpful to those who receive it. They would become wiser and better human beings than atheists and others who do not receive God’s messages. But that’s not so.

Are Christians, for example, wiser than atheists? Christians say God has revealed hidden truths to them which they could never have discovered by themselves. But Christianity has fragmented into over 30,000 denominations, repeatedly splitting over – guess what? – disagreements about what God is telling them! Rather than hearing clear messages, theists are projecting their own fantasies and prejudices onto a great blank screen in the sky.

What’s worse, these alleged communications do not make believers better persons. Of course some religious people are saintly, but so are some atheists. And church history reveals the wickedness of religious organizations – church leaders burning heretics alive, stirring up witch-hunts, and fomenting “holy” wars. Even today religion fans the flames of inter-group conflict.

You’d think that those who give their whole lives to religion would become especially good people, but we now know that the priesthood of a prominent American denomination was for many years a haven for sexual predators. I trust that those priests were praying every day, but they kept right on abusing children.

Here’s another shocking discovery. According to psychologist of religion David Wulff, researchers have found a correlation between membership in Christian churches and “ethno-centrism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, … rigidity, intolerance of ambiguity, and … prejudice, especially against Jews and blacks.” (Cited by William R. Murry, Reason and Reverence, p. 118.) The more traditionally religious you are, the more prejudiced you are likely to be! Stanford chaplain Scotty McLennan offers “evidence that religion is itself a root cause of conflict and violence.” In giving us a sense of identity, it divides us into in-groups and out-groups, so it intensifies people’s viciousness instead of reforming them.

If churchgoers show no evidence that their spiritual life is making them better persons, how can we believe their testimony that God is speaking to them? Suppose I tell you that I exercise every day in an invisible gymnasium in my house. Even if I managed to convince you that a gym could be invisible, wouldn’t you be skeptical of my claim if you noticed that I was getting weaker instead of stronger?

If God doesn’t communicate with us, God probably does not exist. But if people do receive divine communications, that should make them wiser and better, and it does not. Closely examining the claim that God communicates actually undermines the case for deity.

Another point: My worthy opponent thinks the laws of nature are “fine-tuned” to support the presence of intelligent life. But physicists say there may be other universes, perhaps even an infinite number of universes. Only a few of these systems might happen to be suitable homes for living creatures. If these creatures didn’t know about all the other universes, it would seem as if “the” universe was specifically designed for their benefit. “Wow, how come everything is arranged so precisely for me? I guess there must be a God!”

Furthermore, this claim that even tiny changes in the laws of nature would eliminate all life is actually controversial. Maybe natural laws could vary a lot and still support life. In his book, Seeking God in Science, Philosopher Bradley Monton reports that physicists disagree about fine-tuning. We have no idea whether most of them would agree with the fine-tuning theory or disagree.

In saying we need God, the Reverend resorted to a flippant comment about atheism having no explanation for how matter “magically rearranged itself … into dinosaurs.” Well obviously SOMETHING basic and wondrous did happen for no reason. Either matter exists for no reason, or God exists for no reason. People who say God made the universe don’t ask where God came from. They just shrug their shoulders and change the subject. As Steven Wright says, “A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.”

People may get tired of thinking, but science never grows weary of seeking new truth, shrinking gaps in our knowledge, whittling away at the need for the archaic God-hypothesis.

 

What will Pastor Chris say in response? Tune in next week. And what would you say, if you are a theist? Post a comment and let me know.

Roger Christan Schriner

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