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Religion, Criticism, and Education… Oh my!

Science education Atheists tend to deliver a lot of criticism of theology, be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or some other flavor. We find fault with the resurrection of Jesus, the winged horse of Muhammad, Moses and the Ten Commandments, the Holy Trinity, and a myriad of other theistic claims made by these religions. We debunk their holy books, criticize their faith-based messages, argue against their primitive views of morality, and generally demand evidence for their extraordinary claims.

All of these issues, however, rest on one basic foundational principle of theistic beliefs… that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god exists and has always existed without a creator of its own.

Many atheists spend time refuting the existence of a god while at the same time acknowledging that it’s not possible to prove the nonexistence of said entity. The refutations generally come in two main forms: pointing out the complete lack of any credible evidence and dismantling apologetic arguments (such as the cosmological argument). Many of the apologetic arguments consist of so much circus-like, semantic, hoop-jumping that they really should be dismissed out of hand for their absurdity, but we still go through the mental exercise of pointing out the fallacies or refuting the (attempted) logic or issuing counterpoints to invalidate the conclusions.

If the existence of a god cannot be proven (or even demonstrated), then why do we need to continually debunk the other theistic claims of specific religions? Why do we have to repeatedly explain how the biblical flood didn’t happen? Why do we need to point out flaws in the bible? Why do we need to show how the Qur’an is riddled with statements demanding violence? Why do we need to present evidence for evolution… again? Why do we need to do any of this since its validity all rides on the existence of a supernatural, all-powerful deity whose existence cannot be proven, demonstrated, or sometimes even coherently defined?

If there is no god, theistic religions are bunk.

Whatever the biological or psychological need is that nudges humans toward superstitious beliefs, it works fairly well. Most people believe in a god of some sort. Most people are brought up believing in a god, indoctrinated from birth to believe in, not just a deity, but in an entire system based upon stories of miracles and supernatural wonders that defy all rational understanding. It’s a system that can rarely be dismantled simply by attempting to remove the foundational block of god-belief. In most cases, the only way for it to be taken apart is from the top down, starting with the doctrinal beliefs.

The goal, for me anyway, isn’t to rid the world of religion. The goal is to keep religions from being forced upon unwilling recipients, be it via government intrusion, corruption of education, or imposition of archaic moral philosophies. I don’t care if John Q. Public believes in a deity. I care if he lets that belief affect decisions that effect me. I care if he wants to base public policies on unsupported religious doctrine instead of rational thinking. I care if he wants to impose his 1st-century view of morality on me and my family. I care if his religion dictates to me what I can and cannot do.

Most religious folks can handle this just fine. Their day to day living and decisions are based on societal norms and they don’t go around preaching to everyone they meet about how Jesus is the only way to be saved from eternal damnation. They’re generally friendly, fun, trustworthy, and enjoyable to be around. Many don’t even discuss religion except when they go to church on Sunday. It’s just not that important them in a social sense.

Sadly, the religious loud-mouths ruin it for them. From self-righteous abortion protestors to fire-and-brimstone evangelists to morally dubious right-wing politicians who attempt to push biblical policy into our political system, religious fundamentalists are a significant cause of atheists’ vociferous criticisms. And since asking them nicely to keep their religious ideology out of the political system tends not to work, the only way to combat their insidiousness is to speak out, often and loudly, against their theology… and since saying "there is no evidence for your god" tends not to work, the only way to block their religious tentacles from insinuating themselves into our government is to debunk their dogma… debunk their holy books… debunk their claims of biblical truth… debunk their muddled, 2000-year-old ideas of morality.

That’s what we have to do now to maintain our religious freedoms, but how do we keep the situation from continuing ad nauseum? How do we make sure that our children, and our children’s children, don’t fall prey to the same ideological black hole into which we are threatened to be pulled?

Polls show there is an inverse correlation between education levels and religious belief. It would seem that the best approach to stemming the tide of religious fundamentalism and its attempts to creep further and further into our governments, our schools, and our private lives is better education. Real education… education that includes not just memorization of numbers and historical facts, but tools for critical thinking and problem solving.

We need to teach our children to have a sense of wonder and curiosity about the universe instead of settling for the unenlightening answer of "God did it." We need to show them how science is the best way we have for understanding how things work and how language and communication skills are key to spreading knowledge. We need to help them learn the tried and true methods for evaluating evidence and reaching conclusions. We need to teach them that it’s okay if the facts leads somewhere new. We need them to understand that claims of truth require evidence. We need them to learn… learn… learn.

Until then, we’re destined to continue in the fight against superstitious ideology that fundamentalists want to impose on us. We’ll keep debunking, keep criticizing, keep educating, and keep learning… until we have dismantled the ivory tower of theistic dogma.

…from the top down.

Book Review: Reason to Believe

Reason to Believe by R. C. SproulIn his book Reason to Believe, originally published in 1978 under the title Objections Answered, R. C. Sproul states in the preface that purpose of the book is not to “provide a technical study in the science of apologetics” but to “offer basic answers to the most common and frequent objections that are raised about Christianity.” He wants the book to lead the reader to further, more detailed investigations of the problems he addresses. The book does give basic answers. It’s relatively short and is very easy reading.

Reason to Believe was recommended to me by a Christian friend who said that Sproul is one of his favorite apologists because he uses logic and reason to answer the questions rather than simply appealing to human emotions. Whether Sproul actually succeeds is something I’ll address as I go along.

There is a foreword by Lee Strobel from 1993, so even though the book is over thirty years old, it has evidently remained relevant and, according to Strobel, is the perfect book to recommend to skeptics, Christians who may be doubting their faith, and Christians who need to be able to respond to questions about their faith. It does date the book somewhat when Sproul, stating that the bible is not a textbook of science,  says that man’s origins “can never be determined by the study of biology. The question of origin is a question of history.” There have been huge leaps in the biological sciences in the past thirty years that have done amazing things to explain and confirm the origins of the human species, so I was content to let that statement slide, though it pains me to know that many of the readers of this book will take that statement at face value.

The book is divided into ten chapters, each chapter addressing a single question or statement. They include the topics of biblical contradiction, people who never hear of Christ, the existence of God, evil, suffering, and death, along with a number of other issues. Sproul does use techniques of logic, but he frequently uses them incorrectly, bases his initial premise on invalid assumptions, or makes imaginary connections from point A to point B. As promised, however, he does give basic answers, and many of his answers would raise the chins and straighten the shoulders of Christians who have some mild doubts about their faith. Those who are more prone to critical analysis, observable evidence, and reason won’t find much here to persuade them about the validity of Sproul’s Christianity.

Sproul makes frequent use of the “let’s suppose” technique throughout the entire book. When discussing miracles, for instance, he says, “On the other hand, if there is a God who is omnipotent, then miracles are possible and accounts of them cannot be gratuitously dismissed as myths.” I don’t disagree with that statement, but it’s really not answering any questions about miracles. It’s merely playing a game of “What if.” He says that the claim about the bible being full of contradictions is a “radical exaggeration” and stems from the misunderstanding of what contradictions are and how the bible is read. A few examples of biblical contradictions are “explained away” in some apologetic hoop-jumping, though not in any real depth.

I mentioned earlier that Sproul’s use of logic leaves something to be desired. A good example is his case for the infallibility of scripture. His opening premise is “The Bible is a basically reliable and trustworthy document.” That’s a flimsy, unsupported premise to begin with other than a few preceeding paragraphs about some historical accuracy, but he then moves to “On the basis of this reliable document we have sufficient evidence to believe confidently that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” That’s a pretty huge jump, one that I and anyone else who’s using some critical thinking would thoroughly reject. However, Sproul continues on with four more jumps, leading us to the conclusion that the bible is infallible. His logic resoundingly fails, and frequently does so throughout the rest of the book.

One reason why the book is good for Christians who want a bit of support and not so good for non-believers is that Sproul frequently begins his answers with theistic assertions. When discussing whether the “poor native who never heard of Christ” is doomed, for a large part of his argument, he relies on the biblical notion of original sin, stating that nobody is innocent. So the question, “What happens to the innocent person who’s never heard of Christ?” is dismissed partly by a theistic technicality and partly by semantic games. He plays other semantic games when discussing the existence of God, modifiying definitions of “chance” and “created by” so as to suit his needs.

Sproul also seems to espouse the all-too-common, yet blatantly ignorant and offensive, claims that people reject religion because of mistreatment or abuse, and that atheists reject God to unburden themselves from guilt, to indulge their own desires at the expense of others, or because they don’t like the idea that they are “ultimately accountable to a just and holy God.” While that may be true in some cases, it’s much more likely that atheists reject religion simply because there is no evidence to support its theistic claims. However, Sproul continues his argument for religion for almost an entire chapter based on this faulty premise.

The last tactic that is frequently used throughout the book is the setting up of “straw men” to knock down. Sproul defines the problem in such a way as to make it easy to refute, but by doing so, skirts the actual issue in question. He defines humanism in this way and then proceeds to use biblical quotations to refute it (another reason why the book is better for current Christians than it is for non-believers).

There are so many issues I have with the “reasons to believe” given by the book, that it would take far too long to address them here. Reason to Believe, however, is an easy read, partly due to its small size, but also due in large part to Sproul’s competent writing style. If you’re a non-believer looking to see how Christians tend to address questions about their faith, it’s a quick and interesting read. As Sproul says in his preface, however, if you’re looking for a book on serious apologetics, you won’t find it here.

You will be shaking your head a lot, though.