Another controversy within the Christian community is that of baptism. If you believe the Bible, Jesus gave a simple command:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-28:20 NIV)

Now, I ask you, how many ways can such a simple command be messed up? Apparently, a lot! With this simple straight forward statement comes controversy, church splits and bitter downright hostile disagreements. Christians can’t agree even agree on who should be baptized, never mind how they should be baptised or what baptism even means! Such a simple concept, that god could have easily clarified, is left open to mutliple intepretations and meanings. If you are going to give a command – “go an make disciples..baptizing them in..” doesn’t it make sense to clarify what you are commanding? How hard would it be to add: “And by baptizing, I mean…”? Strangely an omnipotent and omniscient god couldn’t see the outcome of leaving definitions out of a command. Probably because it wasn’t an omnipotent and omniscient god that had anything to do with the command! Let’s look at the controversies:

How Should a Person be Baptized?

How many ways can you possiblity use water on someone? Well there are several and they are all represented in the various modes of baptism.

  • Aspersion – This is more commonly called sprinkling. Water is simply sprinkled on the skin, usually the head.
  • Affusion – This is a little more intense than sprinkling as it is the literal pouring of water over the head and is most common in churches practicing infant baptism.
  • Immersion – Strictly speaking this is when a person stands or kneels in water and water is poured over them during baptism. Less technically, it is often used as a synonym for submersion.
  • Submersion – Submersion is where the body is submerged under water and is common in many evangelical churches where believers baptism is performed.

You may rightly ask whether the mode of baptism matters. Well, yes and no. Some denominations, clearly do not care and leave the choice to the individual. For instance the Methodists teach:

“Let every adult person and the parents of every child to be baptized have the choice of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion” (The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Church).

For other denominations it is clearly important. What it comes down to in these denominations is how you view scripture. If it is the inerrant word of god, then you are compelled to try to do what god supposedly commands. Figuring out exactly what is commanded is a good trick given the contradictory nature of the Bible. But once that is “figured out” by a given demonination or church, they are usually inflexible and totally sure of their intepretation. For instance David E Pratte says:

Sprinkling and pouring are human in origin. They are changes from God’s plan. Only complete immersion can be practiced according to Jesus’ authority.

What if you once received sprinkling or pouring instead of immersion? Gospel baptism is immersion, not sprinkling or pouring. If you have not been immersed, then you have not obeyed Jesus’ command! You have followed only the doctrine of men.

If you now wish to obey Jesus, you must do what He said to do: be baptized (immersed) as described in the passages studied above. He who believes and is baptized will be saved – Mark 16:16. (The Action (Mode) of Baptism: Sprinkling, Pouring, or Immersion?)

According to Mr Pratte, if you were baptized by the wrong method, you haven’t been baptized. Daniel R. Vess, using the same logic, goes even further:

Does sprinkling, pouring, or immersion meet the Bible requirement for baptism? Bible baptism requires: Water (Ac. 10:47); much water (John 3:23); going down into the water (Acts 8:38); coming up out of the water (Mark 1:10; Acts 8:39); a burial (Romans 6:3,4); a resurrection (Romans 6:5; Col. 2:12); a washing of the body with water (Hebrews 10:22) and a birth of water (John 3:5). Only immersion meets all the requirements. Sprinkling and pouring are inadequate substitutes for immersion, and even worse, they are additions to the Word of God (Rev. 22:18,19).

If you have not been immersed in water you have not been baptized. If you have not been baptized you have not been saved: “He that believes and is baptism will be saved, he that does not believe shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16). (Is Sprinkling or Pouring Baptism?)

Here the correct mode of baptism is directly linked to ones salvation. Get it wrong (sorry Catholics) and you aren’t even saved – you are going to burn in hell! Does the mode of baptism matter? To these people and others, the answer is YES and they are willing to condemn entire Christian denominations that practice anything less than full immersion (submersion) as unbelievers.

Who Should be Baptized?

If you think the controversy over the mode of baptism gets a little intense, you haven’t see anything yet. The topic of who should be baptized is explosive! It seems simple. From the command of Jesus, it appears that baptism is linked with disciples (“go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them…”), so only disciples should be baptized. However, nothing in the Bible is clear or simple, as much as individuals would like to argue otherwise. As with the mode of baptism, there are several choices as to who should be baptized, encompassing almost every possible combination. In general, the categories are:

  • All infants
  • Infants of believing adults only
  • Believing children and believing adults
  • Believing adults only
  • A Believer(s) and his/her entire household regardless of belief

Entire demonimations have been formed around the topic of who should be baptized and to some extent, “who” may also determine the mode of baptism. If you believe that infants should be baptized, most likely you are not a proponent of baptism by submersion!

A good overview of the issue of who should be baptized from an infant or believer dicotomy and from an “infant” or “household” view is “A Better Case for “Infant Baptism” by William Shishko. I reference this article for two reasons. The first is that it fairly shows that two groups can disagree about core doctrinal issuses and still be cordial. The second is I think that it is fairly obvious the extent to which the scriptures are contradictory and confusing on this important issue. A lot of assumptions have to be made in order to support a particular viewpoint since there is no clarity in the bible alone. For instance, when it comes to the household baptisms recorded in scripture, you have to make the assumption that infants were included or even part of the household since the Bible is silent. Again, how hard would it be for an omnipotent and omniscient god to “inspire” the writers of scripture to include a simple statement: “… all their household was baptized including all the men,woman, children, servants and their infants…”!

Bryn MacPhail says it this way:

…we must readily admit that neither side of this debate has as much supporting evidence as we would like. What we’ll call ‘the Baptist position’ has plenty of evidence to support the practice of ‘believer’s baptism’. However, what is missing is overwhelming evidence to support ‘believer’s baptism’ to the exclusion of infant baptism. And those who endorse the baptism of Christian children must admit that this endorsement is made by reasonable inference rather than according to a clear mandate. What I mean is that there is no verse in Scripture that reads, ‘You shall baptize every child born to Christian parents’—there is no explicit biblical mandate to baptize children. By the same token, there is no verse that reads, ‘You shall not baptize children; you may only baptize those who profess faith in Jesus Christ’—there is no explicit verse forbidding the baptism of children. So, again, in the absence of explicit New Testament instruction on this matter, neither side of this debate has as much supporting evidence as we would like. (The Biblical Basis For Infant Baptism)

However, as nice and polite as this discussion can be, this conflict can get downright nasty. Usually this is by those who profess some type of believers baptism since almost everyone who holds to infant baptism also holds to believers baptism for those not baptized as infant. For example:

The insistence on trying to use circumcision and household as the basis for this doctrine is damaging enough, but this is compounded by a total disregard for all the other many Scriptures which clearly teach water baptism is only for believers in Christ…no Christian should have anything to do with infant baptism for any reason. In fact, such is a baptism in name only. If such a person who was previously “baptized” as an infant should become a real Christian, he is commanded like all others to undergo true Christian baptism. Moreover, the mode of Christian baptism found in the Bible is immersion. (Infant Baptism—Is It Christian by Dan Corner)

Infant baptism is not a Scriptural doctrine. It is not found in the Bible. There is not one example in the Bible of one single baby being baptized. We will show that baby baptism is of pagan origin. It is my purpose in this article to set forth my reasons for saying, as I often have said, that…INFANT BAPTISM IS RESPONSIBLE FOR SENDING MORE PEOPLE TO HELL THAN ANY OTHER RELIGIOUS ERROR. From my point of view, it is a dreadful thing to baptize a baby and let him grow up believing that by that baptism he has been saved and is on his way to heaven. (Infant Baptism Exposed! It’s History and Harm by William Pettingill)

Being baptized as an infant doesn’t show that we understand God’s word and can apply his knowledge to make sound Christian decisions when Satan attacks. An infant can not understand what this type of dedication will entail and therefore should not be baptized. Baptism is a personal choice that should only be done after someone has dedicated his/her life to God. It is not a decision that should be made lightly. And it is certainly not a decision that should be made by someone else, such as the parent of an infant child. (Is Infant Baptism Christian? by CRAOM)

Infant Baptism is nothing, has no saving efficacy, delivers no grace, confers no faith, is a symbol of nothing. It is absolutely and totally pointless. It leads to ritualism, confusion and false security. (Is Infant Baptism Biblical? by Grace To You)

The fact is, infant baptism is no more than a human tradition. It has no higher authority than fallible man. It represents a digression from the New Testament order of things and ought to be abandoned by conscientious people who respect biblical authority. There are eternal consequences associated with advocating this error. As Schweitzer acknowledges: “[I]f Christian baptism is only for those who have enough faith to repent and believe, we are wrong and hypocritical to baptize anyone who is too young to exhibit these qualities.” (“We Baptize Babies” – A Response by Wayne Jackson)

Infant baptism is an evil, because its practice is unsupported by the word of God; because its defense leads to most injurious perversions of scripture; because it engrafts Judaism upon the gospel of Christ; because it falsifies the doctrine of universal depravity; because it contradicts the great fundamental principle of justification by faith; because it is in direct conflict with the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration; because it despoils the church of those peculiar qualities which are essential to the church of Christ; because its practice perpetuates the superstitions that originally produced it; because it subverts the scripture doctrine of infant salvation; because it leads its advocates into rebellion against the authority of Christ; because of the connection it assumes with the moral and religious training of children; because it is the grand foundation upon which rests the ration of church and state; because it leads to religious persecutions; because it is contrary to the principles of civil and religious freedom; because it enfeebles the power of the church to combat error; because it injures the credit of religion with reflecting men of the world; because it is the great barrier to Christian union; because it prevents the salutary impression which baptism was designed to make upon the minds both of those who receive it, and of those who witness its administration; and because it retards the designs of Christ in the conversion of the world. These, mainly, are the charges I prefer against infant baptism, and I believe that I have proved each one of them conclusively, if so, it is a great and unmitigated evil. It not only does no good, but it does evil, immense evil, and only evil (The Evils of Infant Baptism by Robert Boyt C. Howell)

What is the Meaning of Baptism?

As with the other aspects of baptism, there are also disagreements on the meaning of baptism. Is it:

  • A sign of obedience to a command of Christ?
  • Is it necessary for salvation?
  • Is it a symbol of identifying oneself as a believer in Christ?
  • Does it actually confer salvation?
  • Is it an obsolete – something for another time and age?
  • Is is a sign of the New Covenant that replaces the Old Testament’s sign of circumcision?

To some extent, how a Christian views the mode of baptism and who should be baptized, impacts the question of the meaning of baptism. For instance, if a Christian believes in infant baptism, it would be difficult to believe that it is a means of identifing oneself (as an infant) as a believer in Christ; although it may be looked at as identifying the parents as “in Christ” who are being obedient to Christ in baptizing their infant. As might be expected, those who see it as actually confering salvation are in direct opposition to those who see baptism in some symbolic sense.

Most of the hostilities in this area come over the question of whether baptism actually does something. For instance the Roman Catholic Church believes that baptism removes the taint of orignal sin and actually accomplishes several things (abbreviated list from A Guide to Catholic Baptism):

Baptism does five things specifically.

  1. It forgives all sins that may have been committed prior to a person’s baptism including original sin and it relieves the punishment for those sins.
  2. It turns the person into a newly adopted son of God and a member of Christ.
  3. It brings someone into the flock of the faithful and brings them to share in the royal priesthood of Christ (1Pet. 2:9-10).
  4. It gives a share in the common priesthood of all believers and it also brings about the sacramental bond of the unity of Christians.
  5. Last, but certainly not in the least, it leaves and indelible spiritual mark (character) of belonging to Christ on the soul. Nothing you can do will take away this mark even if you sin a million times.

Most protestant denominations would strongly disagree with #1 and #5 and may have problems, to varying degrees, with the other points. However “Baptismal Regeneration” (salvation is linked to baptism) is also believed by several Protestant groups as well (see Baptismal Regeneration). I’ll deal with this topic more in depth when I tackle the topic of the varying views of salvation; but, for our purposes right now, it is enough to show that there are strong disputes over what baptism means and accomplishes.

For instance, on the other side, is the more common Protestant view that baptism is a symbolic identification with Christ:

Why do we have to be completely covered by water when we are baptized? God chose immersion in water because it is a very powerful way of showing us that our sins must be forgiven. Believers realise that they need saving from sin and require God’s grace. They go under the water in baptism, and die to an old way of life. They come up out of the water to a new life. In baptism, believers identify with the death of Jesus Christ, who died for us. Just as Jesus rose from the dead, they also rise from the waters of baptism…(Baptism in Christadelphian Bible Mission)

If the meaning of baptism could be boiled down to one word, that word would be identification. Baptism speaks primarily of a personal, public identification with Jesus Christ. (What does Baptism Mean? by Ray Pritchard)

Conclusion

Even though the topic of baptism and the command to baptize appears to be fairly straight forward, it is far from it. Deep divisions and even church splits are caused by a little water – to sprinkle or not, to baptize infants or not, to save or not. The supposed word of god, in spite of what the church wants you to believe, is not clear on even such a basic issue. But why take baptism so seriously? Obviously, some denominations don’t, but the closer one gets to believing the bible is the literal word of god, without error, the stronger one has to hold “fast” to the “truth” as they see it. If the bible is without error… If your interreptation is correct… If god cares about the “truth” contained in his word… It follows that any interpretation that doesn’t agree with yours is not only error it is heresy! It can’t be otherwise.

It’s hard to understand this passion unless you lived it; but, understanding it is the key to breaking the spell of belief and faith in an imaginary god.

I had planned on continuing my series on Christian unity with a look at baptism. That article is still in the works and will be posted soon; however, I was side tracked by the March issue of New Horizons Magazine. Emblazed on the cover were the words “Adam. Man or Myth.” This immediately grabbed my attention. In the past I have maintained that evolution destroys the traditional foundation of Christianity. I stated:

The big issues as I see are:

If there was no real Adam and Eve and no real Fall, then how did sin enter the world? This sin is supposedly grievous enough that it required a Savior/Redeemer.

If there was no event which caused a Fall, what is the point of a Savior/Redeemer? What was he to Redeem us from? (Why I am an Atheist – Part 7: Evolution)

In fact, it is one of several reasons why I am an atheist today. I was very interested to see what a conservative Christian denomination (The Orthodox Presbyterian Church) had to say. I was not disappointed. Here is a sampling of quotes from a couple articles in the magazine:

My thesis is simple: by questioning the historicity of Adam, one must revise the doctrine of original sin with serious modifications. Even recent purveyors of theistic evolution, who question the historicity of Adam, recognize this to be the case… if Adam is not the responsible agent for casting the human race into a condition of sin and misery, then at whose feet should we place the blame for our human predicament? Does it not follow, if one removes the historicity of Adam from the equation and if our historical forefather Adam is not responsible for our condition of sin and misery, that someone else must bear that responsibility? It seems to this author that the necessary consequence is to make God responsible for the evil we observe in the world. (Should we still believe in a historical Adam? by Bryan D. Estelle)

If it is not true that all human beings descend from Adam, then the entire history of redemption, as taught in Scripture, unravels. The result is no redemptive history in any credible or coherent sense… If Adam was not the first man, who fell into sin, then the work of Christ loses its meaning… By now it should be clear that questioning or denying the descent of all humanity from Adam as the first human being has far-reaching implications for the Christian faith. It radically alters the understanding of sin, particularly concerning the origin and nature of human depravity, with the corresponding abandonment of any meaningful notion of the guilt of sin. It radically alters the understanding of salvation, especially in eclipsing or even denying Christ’s death as a substitutionary atonement that propitiates God’s just and holy wrath against sin. And it radically alters the understanding of the Savior, by stressing his humanity, especially the exemplary aspects of his person and work, to the extent of minimizing or even denying his deity. (“All mankind, descending from him…”? by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.)

At least these two authors understand the issues involved. They understand that if Adam was not a real person and the Fall was a not real event, Christianity has no legs to stand on. The problem, of course, is science – man evolved. Therefore, they are compelled to stand against science or to re-interpret science to fit their theology; hence, the Creationist and Intelligent Design movements. You can’t understand these movements without understanding their theological underpinnings. They are vital to help support a failed theological system. They also understand this:

Science is perceived as forcing us to acknowledge that, on a literal reading of this passage, some details simply do not cohere with the view that all human beings descend from Adam and Eve… scientific findings are being given priority in the sense that they are seen as necessitating a rejection and consequent reinterpretation of what has heretofore been considered certain, as well as basic, biblical teaching. In that regard, let’s not suppose that we are faced here with yet one more “Galileo moment,” where Christians need to adjust their thinking and get on board with science. Plainly at issue here is not an aspect of our ever-changing understanding of the physical workings of our environment and the universe at large, but perennial and unchanging matters that are basic to who we are as human beings—what it means to be created in God’s image and the kind of relationship with him that that entails… Scripture, not nature, always has priority in the sense that in it God reveals himself, as the Belgic Confession also says, “more clearly and openly,” particularly on matters basic to our identity as human beings and our relationship to him. (All mankind, descending from him …”? by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.)

While a nice rhetoric device, the distinction Gaffin makes between a “Galileo moment” and “matters that are basic to who we are as human being” is no distinction at all. The geocentric model of the universe was a vital Christian doctrine. It was supported by scripture and showed the importance of man in the created universe. Man (earth) was the center of the universe. How could it be otherwise? After all man was god’s masterpiece of creation. To have it otherwise demoted man to nothing more than “cosmic dust.” The issue was about who we are as human beings. Bruno was burned alive as a heretic and Galileo was ostracized by the church. While scientifc facts can be ignored for a time, resistant is ultimately futile. Christian theology had to be revised to accept the new heliocentric model. (see The impact of the transition from a geocentric universe to a heliocentric universe for a quick overview)

It is no accident that this issue of New Horizons Magazine also had an article on “Evaluating the claims of scientists” by Vern S Poythress. In it he states:

…many modern scientists have strayed from the truth. They think of law as an impersonal mechanism. This kind of thinking is a form of idolatry, conforming to the Bible’s description in Romans 1:22–23: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man.…” In ancient times, people made physical statues to represent false gods. Now, people often exchange God for a substitute in the form of an allegedly impersonal, mechanical law. This kind of substitution is still a form of idolatry…Does it really make a difference whether we believe that the laws of the universe are God’s speech rather than an impersonal mechanism? It does. The regularities that modern scientists discover approximate God’s word or God’s law governing the present providential order of things. But the Bible distinguishes the present providential order from the way things were during the time when God created the world, as described in Genesis 1–2. So God may have acted differently during that time. Indeed, he may still act differently later on in history, when he responds personally to the personal needs of his people. He can work miracles, as he did with Noah’s flood and with the plagues in Egypt. God is not restricted in his actions by allegedly impersonal, natural law.

This tactic is not new. First you quote scripture showing that we are fools to reject god and his scripture and then you say, with no evidence at all, that god did things differently in the past, by-passing the laws of nature. It works among the faithful. They, after all, have special revealed knowledge. Knowledge that god gave them that tells them what he actually did and how he acted. What I find amazing are the following statements by Poythress:

Darwinists rely on several assumptions. Not evidence, but rather a philosophical presupposition, has excluded God from the process…. Might there be some alternative explanations for the striking similarities? The term “intelligent design” belongs to an approach that stresses that similarities between living things may be due to common design features… We have always known that we look somewhat like monkeys. Now we know that our DNA is like monkeys’ DNA. So what? Quantitatively, we have much more evidence of a relationship. But we still have the same fundamental question, namely, what kind of relationship is evidenced? The evidence has to be interpreted. And the interpretation always takes place within a framework of many assumptions about the nature of the world and the nature of scientific investigation. If a scientist assumes a Darwinist framework of impersonal law, he is going to infer confidently that humans and monkeys have a common ancestor and that gradualistic, purposeless evolution is the explanation for the analogies. But a Christian not already committed to such a framework should contemplate another possibility, namely, that all of life reflects not only common design from God, the supernatural Designer, but also a pattern of analogies reflecting on earth the original pattern of God the Son as the image of the Father… The world around us tells us to accept the latest scientific pronouncements as the product of experts who know much better than we do. As Christians, we must not overestimate our knowledge or our expertise. But we have in the Bible a divine message that we can trust. We ought to use its guidance. The Bible criticizes modern science for its idolatry. Assumptions about the nature of law and assumptions about what counts as an explanation or what counts as relevant evidence play a major role in science.

No evidence? Use the bible NOT science? I find these statements curious coming from a person who believes a theological system that, in reality, has no evidence for it. Where is the evidence for the supernatural? Where is the evidence, outside of biased religious texts, for the view that Christianity is the one true religion? Where is the evidence for creation de novo that the Christian system demands? Where is the evidence that the bible is the inspired word of god? It contains scientific errors, historic errors and a moral system that is abhorent to anyone but the most hardened Christian fundamentalist. In fact, outside the bible, you will be hard-pressed to find any contemporary evidence for an historic Jesus. In spite of all the wonders that he supposedly did, there are no eye-witness, non-religious accounts supporting his life as detailed in scripture. Where is the evidence for Christianity as god’s true religion? Where is the evidence, other than a personal feeling it is true, that the bible should be believed over science? If it has errors in things we can check, why should we believe it when it comes to claims that we cannot check? In fact, where is the evidence for a god, any god? I am talking about scientific evidence here. Without evidence there is no good reason, outside of a particular religious bias, to pick a particular creation myth (in this case Christianity) over any other religious creation myth. You might as well believe that man and woman were created from two trees as in the Norse myth of creation! After all, nothing is impossible for god.

In contrast, “all” science has is evidence. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. Science has a massive amount of fossil evidence, including transitional forms, for evolution. There is also the genetic evidence, so casually dismissed above. Not only do we share genes with our primate ancestors, we have recently shown that we share genes with an extinct branch of hominids – the Neanderthals (for example see What Were the Consequences of Early Human & Neanderthal Interbreeding?) The evidence for evolution extends from geology to palentology to molecular genetics. It is truely one of the best attested facts in all of biology. Dr Tim White a Paleontologist at the University of California at Berkeley has said: “A denial of evolution – however motivated – is a denial of evidence, a retreat from reason into ignorance.”

In my blog post referenced above, I list several good books on evolution. I suggest starting there. If you are interested in human evolution, the following books are a good starting point:

Conservative Christianity can fight human origins all it wants, but resistence is ultimately futile. There are those, including the Catholic Church, that recognize this fact. For instance Denis Lamoureux acknowledges that the Adam story is a myth (Was Adam a Real Person? Part I). He states “My central conclusion in this book is clear: Adam never existed, and this fact has no impact whatsoever on the foundational beliefs of Christianity.” He is wrong. Not about Adam, but about whether it matters. As the authors above have shown, eliminating Adam as an historic person guts Christianity of its most core doctrines and reduces Christianity to nothing more than another philosophical or social system. Ultimately, science will win.

In this series of posts, I’ll be showing some of the doctrinal diversity that exists within the Christian framework.  Some Christians treat these differences as small internal squabbles of no real consequence since they agree on the larger Christian “core” doctrines. However, I think we will see that these “squabbles” aren’t so inconsequential. Some groups look at them as “core”, while others see anyone not believing as they do as believers in serious error. They are second class Christians bordering on heresy, if not actual heretics. In many cases the conflicting beliefs are radically incompatible with each other and have a direct impact on faith and practice. It should be noted that each camp can support their beliefs by various scripture passages and believe that their interpretation is the one true, god-ordained belief and that other interpretations are seriously flawed. Those interpretations are going against the word of god and thus perverting what god himself has said. The results are a lot of heated debates, church splits, new denominations and other devisive (them vs. us) behaviors.

My contention is that such doctrinal variety and diversity shows that the supposed “word of god” is unclear, murky and confusing.  There is no guarantee that any group has it right and a lot of evidence that they all have it wrong. After all, can you really believe that a sovereign, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god who desperately wants to communicate with his creation in order to show them the ONLY way to salvation can bungle the job so badly? As we will see, even a “core” belief such as “what must I do to be saved?” has radically different, incompatible answers. If there is a god and the Bible is his inspired, inerrant word then he shows himself to be an incompetent communicator at best and malicious at worst. Of course, I believe that it shows the Christian god to be no god at all and the Bible to be just the ramblings and thoughts of ancient man – neither better nor worst that any other past mythology.

It should be obvious that I’m not attempting to show which “belief” or doctrine is the “correct” one.  Indeed, there is no correct belief since all Christian doctrine is simply made-up with some scripture verses and unending commentary as support. It is staggering when you think about how much has been written about, how many wars have been fought, how many people have been killed and martryed over made-up doctrine and belief! None of it can be supported. None of it can be proved. How much tragedy has been caused in the history of the world over vacuous, imaginary beliefs that supposedly came from an invisible, inaudible god?

Let’s start with something “easy” such as speaking in tonques or the charismatic gifts. Bradley correctly describes the differences as follows:

There are two basic views when it comes to the charismatic gifts debate. One of these views is the cessationist view, which basically claims that charismatic gifts such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, and healing among other things ceased to happen after the New Testament. On the opposite side of the spectrum there is the continuationist view, which claims that such gifts have continued all the way until today and that Christians are still able to perform such gifts in their lives. (The Charismatic Gifts Debate)

Of course, even this description is simplistic.  Within these 2 basic camps are a wide variety of beliefs ranging from cautious disagreement to an “if you don’t agree with me you aren’t a true believer” attitude. George Knight in the article “Facing the Charismatic Challenge” in New Horizons Magazine says:

One of the most important differences between the Reformed, and the Pentecostals and some charismatics, is the belief of the latter that the book of Acts is our guide for the special gifts and that the baptism of the Holy Spirit, as it appears in Acts, occurs as a special act subsequent to regeneration by the Spirit… How then are we to interact with our charismatic fellow Christians? When the opportunity is appropriate, we should talk with them in an understanding way and try to show them from Scripture that the supernatural special gifts have ceased because they have completed the tasks God assigned to them. When they point to their own lives as proof positive of their charismatic thinking, we should try to point out to them other ways of understanding their experiences… We must be eager to protect the Christian flock from the error of the charismatics. But, at the same time, we must embrace those who are caught up in that error as brothers and sisters in the Lord and seek to lead them away from that error. (Facing the Charismatic Challenge

Error? Explain their experience in other ways? What of Mr. Bradley’s suggestion:

I think the best way to find out is for one to experience it himself. When a person sees someone healed (or perhaps is the person being healed) it will become much more obvious that God still does these things. Or if someone is prophesied over they just might fall to their face and worship God, declaring that God is there (1 Cor. 14:25). Most of the charismatic gifts that Christians practice are Biblical and until a cessationist tries to experience it, they will have a hard time understanding or believing it, which is not only their loss, but also the Holy Spirit’s. (The Charismatic Gifts Debate)

Or is David King right?

The mania for the miraculous that one finds among charismatics has the effect of making God’s promised means of grace look dull and uninteresting to many. There is a great danger in this. If we despise what God does use in preference for dramatic “ministries” carried on and hyped up by the will and energy of man, we will get man-made “blessings” instead of God’s real work. Paul warns that when the man of lawlessness is revealed, his coming will be “in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (2 Thess. 2:9–10). (Are Charismatic Gifts for Today?)

Or maybe CARM’s position is the one to take:

The issue of whether or not the charismatic spiritual gifts are for today has caused much debate and division in the body of Christ. The extremes are amazing. There are groups that say that if you do speak in tongues, then you are under demonic control and are not saved. On the other hand, some say that if you do not speak in tongues then you are not saved. What’s more, both extremes use scripture to support their positions. It is my opinion that the charismatic spiritual gifts are still in effect. I do not believe they ceased with the apostles or with the completion of the Bible. (Have the Charismatic Gifts Ceased?)

Maybe Jim Feeney has it right?

Speaking in tongues? Prophecies? Healings? Discerning of spirits? These and other supernatural signs and spiritual gifts were commonplace occurrences in the early Church. On that the Bible record is clear. But should we expect such spiritual gifts in our churches today? A growing number of Christians responded “Yes!” to this question during the twentieth century and up to the present time… and expect God to confirm His word with “signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 2:4) (Gifts of the Holy Spirit Are for Today!)

We can go back and forth like this for days, but there are a few things to note:

  1. All of the articles above site scripture to support their claims, sometimes using the same verses with radically different understandings.
  2. All of the authors are confident in their understanding even calling the other view an error, seeking to please man rather than god, not taking the scripture (or god) seriously, etc.
  3. The reformed position (Calvinistic) attempts to belittle personal experience in favor or a more “intellectual” scripture based approach.
  4. The Charismatic side attempts to show that personal experience validates the scripture and hence is true.

I find the downplaying of “personal” experience as a means of validation in the Reformed, non-Charismatic camp very interesting. The fact is that the entire Christian faith is experience oriented.  Notice the word FAITH.  Without it, you cannot be saved and faith, by definition, means there is no evidence. It appears that in some Christian camps personal experience is ok to “come to Christ” but it isn’t appropriate to validate the things of Christ – an interesting and inconsistent position.

Why is this debate important? Simply speaking, if god did intend for the Charismatic gifts to remain, then opposing them is opposing god – a serious charge.  Yet, if god intended them to end with the early church, claiming that these gifts are for today is also opposing god and attributing to him something that he has done away with. Both obviously cannot be true and one party sees the other as going against the dictates of god. This is why this debate rages and is taken seriously by all parties.  It is also why this is not just a petty squabble!

Strangely neither camp sees that the Bible is not clear in this regard; rather, they see that their scripture is clear but the interpretation of the other side is faulty. Indeed, they fail to see that god is an incompetent communicator, incapable of clearly presenting his will and plan to man.  How hard would it be to say something like this: These gifts will end a decade after my death.” Or “Everyone will know you are my children because these gifts in your life will be present until I come again.”  Of course, if there really was a Christian god, he would not be so competent. I maintain that this is just more evidence that the Christian god does not, in fact, exist.

What isn’t well appreciated or understood by many atheists is the diversity of thought and doctrine within the Christian framework. When a statement is made against Christianity, almost invariably, there are those who will reply, “That’s not what a true believer believes.” Then it is a simple matter to dismiss anything that particular atheist says and to see atheists, in general, as being misinformed about Christianity. This is unfortunate, but it is a reality that is hard to get around considering there are over 34,000 denominations that use the Christian label and there is little agreement as to what the term “Christian” means.

I think a fair definition is:

..any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. That is, they honestly believe that they follow Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) teachings as they understand them to be. (Christianity: introduction and definition)

Even so, ReligiousTolerance.org, where the defintion was found, readily admits that they have collected over 40 definitions of “Christian” (Who is a Christian). For some believers the definition goes too far. For others it doesn’t go far enough and is woefully inadequate. (In the past, I would have been in this camp.) Many Christians will fight against the above definition and demand that theirs be used. These definitions will often refer to certain core or cardinal doctrines which must be believed in order to be called a Christian. Interestingly, even when core doctrines are listed, there are still wide disagreements.

For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity (three gods in one – father, son and holy spirit – separate but indivisible) is prominent on many lists of cardinal doctrines. Yet, including this as a requirement to be a “true” Christian eliminates such denominations as: Christian Scientists, Jehovah Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, United Church of God and Oneness Pentecostals (Nontrinitarianism). Of course, these groups believe that their interpretation of scripture is correct and the Trinity believing groups are heretics. For example:

The internet is filled with web-site after web-site trying to convince those who are gulliable that the One God of the Old Testament is really three Gods. But, obeying their creeds and confessions they balk at the obvious conclusion of their pagan theories and say they are forbidden to call these three separate persons each a God. But does not their creed say: GOD from GOD and VERY GOD from VERY GOD? God from God is certainly more than one God.(The Trinity Doctrine Is Pagan)

Who is correct? When all you have is an error-ridden, inconsistent, and confusing scripture to appeal to, along with (perhaps) church tradition, almost anything can be proven. This diversity of doctrine, I believe, is a clear sign that Christianity isn’t god-inspired at all. How could an omniscience, omnipotent, omnipresent sovereign god manage to bungle his god-spoken word so badly as to give rise to 34,000+ interpretations? Even if one says, as many believers will, that this is due to the sinfulness of man, how can a god not take steps to correct such errors, especially when one’s eternal destiny (heaven or hell) is at stake?

What the Christian is forced to believe, out of necessity, is that there really isn’t a wide variety of “core” beliefs and that “peripheral” issues aren’t really key in defining Christianity. (Or that they are the only ones who got it right!) So we find comforting statements such as:

Central doctrines should not be confused with peripheral issues, about which Christians may legitimately disagree. Peripheral (i.e. non-essential) doctrines include such issues as the timing of the tribulation, the method of baptism, or the structure of church government. For example, one can be wrong about the identity of “the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19) or about the timing of the rapture and still go to heaven, but one cannot deny salvation by grace or the deity of Christ (John 8:24) and be saved. All Christian denominations – whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant – agree on the essential core. The relatively minor disagreements between genuinely Christian denominations, then, cannot be used to argue that there is no objectively recognized core of fundamental doctrine which constitutes the Christian faith. (Essential doctrines of the Christian Faith | Apologetics Index)

This is a wonderful trick to play. You simply state your core doctrines, decide they are the ones necessary to be considered a Christian, define a Christian to be those who hold to your core doctrines, and declare all others as heretics. Throw in some scripture to support your case, shake and you’re done. Simple? Right? I certainly believed that the core doctines I held were true (Calvinism) and that those who disagreed couldn’t see what scripture clearly taught. However, it isn’t that simple. As we have briefly seen, some sincere people who would consider themselves Christian do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity and would see such a “core” belief as heresy!

The truth is that such diversity is a reality and doctrinal beliefs are important. So important, in fact, that groups will go through a painful split from a parent denomination, along with all the emotional drama that entails, in order to be “true” to their interpretation of the word of god. If peripheral issues didn’t really matter, a split into another denomination wouldn’t be an option. This diversity clearly shows that the supposed word of god is far from clear (see Why I am an Atheist. Part 2. The Perspicuity of Scripture – NOT). It is a confusing land-mine where support for almost anything can be found and people can delude themselves into thinking that their interpretation is the one, true, uncorrupted word from god.

Should we really be so surprised? If you genuinely believe a book contains the very words of god, then it becomes of paramount importance to correctly interpret and believe what it says. This is exactly what happens and some believers will defend, even to the death (just think of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Inquisition), their interpretation of “truth” from god. Wars have been fought and people put to death over “peripheral” issues.

Any thoughtful person has to pause and seriously think about a “god” who so poorly communicates with his creatures. They have to engage in some sober thought and reflection about the doctrine they hold, as well as to the whole issue of whether such a god can even exist. What are the chances that, out of 34,000+ (and growing) interpretations, they have the correct one? Indeed,whether there is any correction one. Doctrinal diversity, from a Christian standpoint, isn’t a wonderful thing. It shows, at best, an incompetent god and, at worst, no god at all – just the devices and imaginations of men. If the Christian god does exist, he can’t possibly be concerned with truth or belief, since he has not clearly delineated what to believe, even about such an important topic as how to be saved! (We will look at this issue in another post.)

I believe this diversity of conflicting and confusing Christian doctrines is just one more argument against god and a mortal blow to the Christian god. Over the next few posts, I’ll look at several “core” and “peripheral” Christian beliefs and show the diversity of thought and belief within each one.

I find it interesting when a church, any church, or religious organization cries “persecution.”  Recently Cardinal Burke, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic  in the Roman Catholic Church (I love the pretentious titles the Roman Catholic Church gives its officers.) said:

“It is a war,” he stated, describing the battle lines between “a culture of secularization which is quite strong in our nation,” and “the Christian culture which has marked the life of the United States strongly during the first 200 years of its history.”  He says it is “critical at this time that Christians stand up for the natural moral law,” especially in defense of life and the family. “If Christians do not stand strong, give a strong witness and insist on what is right and good for us both as and individuals and society,” he warned, “this secularization will in fact predominate and it will destroy us.” But the cardinal also thinks persecution may be looming for the U.S. Church. “Yes, I think we’re well on the way to it,” he said, pointing to areas of social outreach – such as adoption and foster care – where the Church has had to withdraw rather than compromise its principles.  This trend could reach a point where the Church, “even by announcing her own teaching,” is accused of “engaging in illegal activity, for instance, in its teaching on human sexuality.” Asked if he could envision U.S. Catholics ever being arrested for preaching their faith, he replied: “I can see it happening, yes.” (Cardinal Burke reflects on his first year in the Sacred College)

Bill Donohue agrees:

Catholic League President Bill Donohue told LifeSiteNews that Cardinal Burke’s remarks were accurate and not exaggerations.  “Secularism has become militant,” he said. “Many elites are taking an aggressive secular approach. They have lined up against the Catholic Church and other Christian churches particularly for their stand on moral values.” (Vatican Cardinal Burke: ‘We’re well on the way’ to Christian persecution in the U.S.)

My first reaction to this news item was poppycock! It takes a lot of moxie for any religious group to cry “persecution” especially when directed at secularism and atheism.  The Pew Research Center published on Nov 21, 2011 the results of a study examining Religious Lobbying in Washington D.C. (Lobbying for the Faithful: Religious Advocacy Groups in Washington, D.C).  They found:

The number of organizations engaged in religious lobbying or religion-related advocacy in Washington, D.C., has increased roughly fivefold in the past four decades, from fewer than 40 in 1970 to more than 200 today. These groups collectively employ at least 1,000 people in the greater Washington area and spend at least $390 million a year on efforts to influence national public policy.

In addition to formal lobbying groups with Washington D.C. offices and staff, the same study reports:

…religious advocacy undoubtedly is conducted, formally and informally, by many individuals and groups beyond the 212 organizations included in this report. Numerous other religious groups send delegations to the nation’s capital, organize campaigns from a distance, join coalitions and contact legislators in their home districts as well as in Washington. For example, the American Family Association, based in Mississippi, operates an extensive legislative alert system that identifies legislation relevant to its members and urges them to contact lawmakers, but it does not have a Washington office. This study focuses on formal, institutional efforts by groups with paid staff and physical offices in or near the nation’s capital. Given the limits of the study, it is likely that the findings reported here underestimate the full breadth and depth of religious advocacy in Washington.

This is in comparision to secular and atheist groups which the same study found:

Just 1% of the advocacy organizations in this study reflect an expressly secular, atheist or humanist point of view, though nonreligious Americans (atheists, agnostics and unaffiliated people who say religion is not too important or not at all important in their lives) make up 10.3% of all U.S. adults.

Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, looks at this study in light of the “persecution” claim here: 5 Reasons the Religious Right Should Stop Whining About Being Persecuted.

I’ve looked at the claim that the media is biased against Christianity here: Media Bias Against Christianity.

With this kind of influence and clout, persecution is hardly the term I would use. Yet, upon reflection, the comments made by Cardinal Burke are encouraging. In spite of the small numbers of people actively involved in the secular and atheist movements and in spite of our pitful lobbying efforts when compared to the efforts of the religious, WE ARE HAVING AN IMPACT!

Groups such as American Atheists, Freedom from Religion Foundation,  Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Secular Coalition for America, and many others are fighting back. They are saying ENOUGH and, amazingly enough, they are being heard. Religious incursion into public and civil areas where they once held uncontested power and influence is being challenged.

Respected men such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett amoug many, many others openly talk about atheism and challenge religious belief and the foolishness of faith. Billboards and bus sign campaigns have successfully been deployed letting closeted atheists know that they are not alone.  Several atheist books have gone on to become best sellers.  The Internet has greatly expanded the ability of a person to find arguments against religion and to “fact-check” sermons.  The days when a preacher could bamboozle his congregation are rapidly coming to an end.

We are having an impact on society and the religious establishment doesn’t like it.  They aren’t used to being challenged and having the foolishness of their beliefs exposed. Faith requires unquestioning obedience – challenge the vacuous nature of faith and belief starts to crumble. So, if you want to redefine persecution as “not getting your way” I suppose you can say, in some warped sense, religion is being persecuted.

As encouraging as these signs are, we still have a long way to go. Atheists are still a hated minority. Republican candidates for the current presidental election in the U.S. are still falling over themselves trying to show how “Christian” and “god-fearing” they are. There are still places in the U.S. where you can lose your job or be actively persecuted by religious believers for being an atheist. The battle has not been won by either side and religion still has the advantage.

Get involved in the fight.  Join me and thousands (hopefully 10’s or 100’s of thousands) of others this March in Washington D.C.

Lobby Day for Reason – Secular Coalition of America – March 23, 2012
This is an event to allow atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secular Americans to directly lobby their members of Congress on the issues that matter to us.

The Reason Rally – March 24, 2012
The Reason Rally is an event sponsored by many of the country’s largest and most influential secular organizations. It will be free to attend and will take place in Washington, D.C. on March 24th, 2012 from 10:00AM – 4:00PM at the National Mall.

American Atheist Convention – March 25 – March 26, 2012
This year’s theme: “Come out! Come out! Wherever you Are!” We will be concentrating this packed-to-the gills convention with help in all aspects of coming out of the atheist closet to your friends, family, and co-workers.

I’ll be at all 3 events.  I hope to see you there.

Non-believers are often confused when they see the lack of cooperation various Christian denominations have with each other and with the non-Christian world around them. This is especially true when it comes to what we would consider important social issues. It’s easy for Atheists to see the Christian would as a relatively homogenous group. After all, they all claim to be Christians and just how many messages could Christ have given? It may surprise some un-believers to learn that the “Christian” world is highly fractured and many groups are very vocal about the “heresy” other groups believe. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that there are over 34,000 Christian denominations and Wikipedia gives an impressive partial listing: List of Christian denominations by number of members.

Even so, why can’t they just put their divisions aside and work together for the greater purpose of helping their fellow man? Why won’t some of them work with secular organizations, especially those that consider themselves evangelical or fundamentalist? This blog post will try to help you understand why.

  1. First and foremost, you need to understand that while the differences that separate the denominations may seen trivial to us, they are vital to that particular group. Remember, the differences were great enough to cause a split. Instead of staying with the original group and keeping a unified front, they chose the pain, agony and conflict that goes with any split. These differences are major ones in their mind, at least if they are going to be “true” to their interpretation of scripture.

  2. Second, as surprising as it may be, many churches do NOT see social issues as their primary concern. In their mind, poverty, disease, justice, etc. are ultimately meaningless if you are going to hell forever. For instance:

    The church is called, first and foremost, to proclaim the gospel. The most loving thing the church can do is to proclaim the gospel of eternal salvation to every economic and social strata. Timmis and Chester say it well, “If we do not keep people’s eternal plight in mind, then immediate needs will force their way to the top of our agenda, and we will betray the gospel and the people we profess to love. The most loving thing we can do for the poor is to proclaim the good news of eternal salvation through Christ.” You must not use social justice to avoid the offense of the cross. No matter how well Christians articulate the gospel, no matter how effectively and compassionately we serve, the gospel will always be offensive to those whose hearts are opposed to God. (Social Justice: The Tension)

    Working with any group that compromises what is seen as the gospel message would therefore be unthinkable. It is a matter of priorities and social justice isn’t number one on the list.

  3. Even within conservative, evangelical denominations there is more than a little confusion as to the role of the church and the individual in regards to social issues. A recent article in New Horizons Magazine, a publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, by Michael S. Horton deals with the issue of Reformed-Roman Catholic Cooperation:

    Scripture clearly includes diaconal care of the saints in the mission of the church, but in my view it does not authorize the creation of agencies for general relief, cultural engagement, political causes, and similar important but nonecclesiastical operations… The church is neither called nor competent to satisfy every human need, but that in no way eliminates the responsibility of Christians to love and serve their neighbors…Obviously, though, this cooperation cannot be regarded as belonging to the Great Commission. This is the serious problem with documents like the Manhattan Declaration. According to this statement and its authors’ interpretations of it, the only justification for speaking together on social issues is our common agreement in the gospel. However, this hinders both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. It hinders the former because we (Reformed Christians, at least) do not have agreement with Rome on the gospel, and in such declarations the gospel and Christ’s mission to deliver it are confused with the law and our cultural activities. It hinders the latter because a (false) Christian consensus in the public sphere often binds Christian consciences beyond Scripture and gives our non-Christian neighbors the impression that the church is another political action committee vying for social power. (Loving Our Neighbors Together: Reformed-Catholic Cooperation?)

    In Mr. Horton’s view, social issues are not something the church should be involved in. They are something that Christians, as individuals, should be involved. He makes that clear by stating:

    So when it comes to loving our neighbor, from globalization and human rights to caring for an elderly parent, Christians can make common cause with adherents of other religions and even agnostics and atheists.

    This is very magnanimous of Mr. Horton, but if the primary reason for doing good works is to give glory to god and to magnify his name, won’t an individual working with unbelievers or those who have a different gospel interpretation dilute or eliminate that message? At best, doesn’t it send a confusing message to those that are being helped, at least from the Christian perspective?

  4. Indeed, there is confusion as to the role an individual Christian should play, apart from the Church, in social causes:

    “In our country, the younger generation is becoming obsessed with social justice,” including through government opportunities, politics and voting, said McKnight, author of The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. “What it’s doing is leading young Christians out of the church and into the public sector to do what they call ‘kingdom work.’ “I want to raise a red flag here: There is no such thing as kingdom work outside the church — and I don’t mean the building. The kingdom is about King Jesus and King Jesus’ people and King Jesus’ ethics for King Jesus’ people. (Associated Baptist Press)

    “That the church must speak the Word of God to the various crises of contemporary human existence is self-evident. But the complexities involved in such a simple assertion require that Christians pay close attention to their choice of message, messenger, and means. Failure to do so will only compromise the deep moral conviction that emerges from the timeless Word of our everlastingly faithful God.” (The Authority of the Church in the World)

    Evangelism and social action are inseparable. They are two sides of the same coin. But they are not identical. Working for economic development in poor communities or structural change to end systemic oppression is not the same thing as inviting persons who do not now confess Christ to embrace Him as Lord and Savior. If we only do social action and never say we do it because of Christ, our good deeds only point to ourselves and make us look good. (Relevant Magazine)

    In this view, the Christian and his/her work in not separate, or should not be separate, from the work of proclaiming the gospel. When engaged in social causes, the recipient must know in whose name (Christ) the work is being done. Here, the work is nothing more than an open door in which to proclaim the message of the Gospel of Christ. As strange as that may seem to those not steeped in the evangelical, Christian mindset, it does make sense. If the most important thing in life is a “relationship” with god through Christ, then all else is secondary.

What does this all mean to Atheists when they are engaged in social issues? I obviously won’t tell my fellow Atheists how to act and what to do, but it is important to know the mindset of those you are working with as well as your own. We can fall into the same uncooperative mindset (rightly or wrongly) if we aren’t careful, because this mindset is a human one and not one limited to religion.

We really shouldn’t be offended if various religious organizations refuse to work with us and I hope this post has shown you some of those reasons. Many Atheists, in turn, won’t work with religious organizations for similar reasons. Of course, there are denominations which do consider social issues their primary mission and are not evangelical in their beliefs. Working with such groups may be fine, but what about the more religious groups and individuals? Here, there are many questions to consider and some Atheists may have problems similar to those just discussed for Christians:

  1. As an atheist, do you want the work you are doing being associated with or done in the name of a god in whom you do not believe?
  2. As an atheist, are you more concerned with the message of non-belief and freeing the minds of people held captive by belief in fairy tales or of helping those in need?
  3. Is the belief in a magical god irrelevant in the grand scheme of things in light of so many pressing issues, especially in times of natural disaster and other such needs?
  4. Do you want those you help to know you hold no allegiance to any god and your purpose is simply to help another human being? This is a big concern for some Atheists since so many people see us as unconcerned with such issues.
  5. Do you help a group financially, Atheist or religious, if you disagree with their belief system or goals if the financial goal is to help your fellow man?

I don’t have all the answers and, in many cases, I think it will depend on the situation and organization. As Atheists and skeptics, we need to be aware of our own reasons and reasoning in such cases and make sure we are following a rational and not purely emotional approach to cooperation.

I am interested in knowing what your thoughts are.

I was recently asked what atheism has to offer the world in place of religion (in this case Christianity). That’s a very good question. If some atheists would like to see religion go the way of the dinosaur, and I am one of them, what are we offering in return? Religion offers, at least on the surface, some of the following “benefits”:

  1. Purpose and meaning in life. What greater purpose is there than doing the will of God? It is also hard to see anything more meaningful than believing that God created the world for a purpose and, by extension, you were created for a specific purpose by an all loving God.
  2. A feeling of being cared for and loved. No matter how bad things get, you have the assurance that there is a loving God that cares for you and loves you. Any trials and pains you are suffering are momentary. They are for a purpose and God will help you get through them
  3. The hope of an afterlife of eternal bliss to those who serve Him and eternal punishment for those who don’t. So good is ultimately rewarded and evil punished. In addition, you will ultimately be reunited with all your believing loved ones. Death is not the end.
  4. A way to make sense of suffering. You have the assurance that there is a purpose to suffering, even if you don’t understand it. God has a grand plan after all.
  5. A moral framework. God provides a black and white moral framework from which to operate. Do this and live. Do that and be punished. No thinking is needed. Your feelings and those of society are irrelevant. Only what God thinks is meaningful.

In light of these benefits, what does atheism have to offer? Ultimately, the answer is that atheism offers a reality based view of the world, not one based on wishful thinking. Even so, that may not be a very satisfying answer to many, so let’s look at each of the supposed benefits that religion offers.

  1. I grant that if the universe is random and was not created for some divine purpose then there is ultimately no grand purpose or meaning to our life. There is no master plan. However, just because there is no master plan or master purpose, does not mean there is no purpose or meaning to our lives. Richard Dawkins has said:

    We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here…But we as individuals are still hugely blessed. Privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever…After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it? (To Live at All Is Miracle Enough.)

    In other words, our purpose and meaning is what we make it. You are alive – I am alive – in spite of overwhelming odds. In addition, this fact alone is greater than any possible miracle and this fact alone should humble us and give us more than enough purpose and meaning in life. That purpose is to live fully and while, with very few exceptions, all of us will be forgotten within just a few generations, we all have an impact within our present time – make that impact count. What better motivation can there be to live?

  2. While it would be nice if there were an afterlife, the is no evidence that it exists. Chances are very great that once we are dead, it all ends for us. It’s a sobering truth and one that should have an impact in our every day life. We will not see loved ones, family or friends after death. This is all there is. Rather than fill us with despair, it should make us appreciate each day we have with those we care for. Relish the time spent. Say “I love you” now, not later. Forgive. Make peace. Tuck the kids in. See these things and more as urgent, because there will be no “afterlife” to make things right. This fact also shows the importance of justice in the here and now. Good isn’t eternally rewarded and evil isn’t eternally punished. We need to get it right now.
  3. Can you really feel loved and cared for by an invisible entity? It’s a poor substitute for a mother’s soothing words or a lover’s embrace. Can you really feel loved when a sovereign entity throws a ton of crap into your life and then says he loves you and it’s for your best? Can you really feel loved when God takes your infant child for “the best”? This “love” and “care” is an illusion at best and a horrible joke at worst. Few would put up with “love” like this if it came from a fellow person. Better is the love of family and friends and the warm embrace of a significant other.
  4. Frankly, there is no making sense of suffering. There is nothing noble about it. There is no divine plan that rewards it. Bad stuff happens, mostly randomly, but sometimes as a result of our actions. If we can get rid of this notion of God ordained suffering, we can more quickly come to the conclusion that it is OUR responsible to minimize it and attempt to eliminate it. Think about how much less suffering there would be in the world if everyone thought this?
  5. Morality definitely doesn’t come from god. Almost no one attempts to keep the moral precepts supposedly given by God in the Old Testament. Even the most hardened fundamentalist would think twice about killing their child for an act of disobedience or imposing the death penalty for working on the sabbath. So if morality comes from God, His morality is evolving too since it is very different from the rules imposed in an earlier time. Our morality has evolved as we have evolved as humans and as a society. We find certain morally acceptable practices of the past (e.g. slavery, racism, genocide, etc.) as unacceptable and I’m sure the future generations will find some of our practices abhorant. What this means is that things may not be black and white, there are shades of grey that we need to learn to live with. We need to think. It’s not as comfortable as being told what is right and wrong, but is is more satisfying.

An atheistic, reality based world view ultimately has a lot to offer as a replacement for a mythical, magic based religious world view.

The May 2011 issue of New Horizons magazine, a publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, has an article describing their missionary work among the Karimojong, a tribe living in northeastern Uganda. In Needing Jesus More Than Anything Else, Albert J. Tricarico, Jr. maintains that in spite of all their problems what they really need is, you guessed it, a relationship with Jesus Christ:

“The people, apart from grace, are enslaved to the sins of drunkenness, stealing, lying, violence, idleness, and jealousy. Polygamy is widely practiced. Animism is their faith, and superstitions of various kinds have captured their hearts and direct their conduct… This is why the Orthodox Presbyterian Uganda Mission is committed to Word-based ministry, combined with works of mercy. We in the Mission want to love our neighbors in many ways, which is why we have a clinic, a farm, and a workshop. It is why we drill wells, teach literacy, and deliver community health instruction. But at every turn we want to love people in the very best way. Above all else, the Karimojong people need Jesus. We have Jesus, and we want to give him to them.”

One person stated the problem as:

“The problem with Karamoja”, a man in Entebbe told me, “is that the people are not civilized. They wear no clothes, raid for cows, and kill people. Ah, those Karimojongs!” This was the response I recently received when I said that I live in Karamoja. It was not the first time I had heard such a thing. He went on to suggest the two things that will help the Karimojong people most: education and disarmament. “Take all their guns, and put the children in school.” That was his program for change.”

Actually that is a very good program for change. A secular education always is. Teaching evolution, for example, shows us that we are all related. We are all brothers and sisters. While I commend the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for building clinics, farms, workshops and teaching people to read and write, the last thing they need is another non-existent god to worship. Jesus isn’t the answer and hasn’t been all that helpful in Uganda.

David Bahati is a Christian, a worshipper of Jesus, and a protege of The Family. His ideal for Uganda, based on a literal interpretation of the scripture is to condemn and kill all homosexuals! (see David Bahati and The Family in Uganda and David Bahati Interview by Rachel Maddow). An extreme example? Not when the man is a member of Parliament, has the backing of a religious organization and almost made his vision law in Uganda! At least he isn’t a consistent literalist (very few are) or he would also be promoting the death penalty for such vicious crimes as: picking up sticks on the Sabbath, disobedience children, false prophecy, adultery, and possibly for eating shellfish (Actions which demand the death penalty in the Old Testament, God Hates Shrimp).

No, what Uganda doesn’t need is more religion – any kind of religion. It needs education, hospitals and clinics, clean water, infrastructure and social change (for example see Ugnanda’s Major Challenge in 2011). It doesn’t need another reason to hate.

In the aftermath of the End of the World / Rapture fiasco, several important lessons need to be learned.

  1. Faith is not a virtue. A lot of people had faith, they had to. There was no logical reason to believe a man that already predicted the wrong date once (now twice). But faith has to trump reason. It’s what faith does and without faith it is impossible to please their god (Hebrews 11:6). Reason said this event wasn’t going to happen just like all the other past dates for the rapture, but they went with faith to please “god”. A case in point: “I had some skepticism but I was trying to push the skepticism away because I believe in God,” said Keith Bauer – who hopped in his minivan in Maryland and drove his family 3,000 miles to California for the Rapture.” (Associated Press)
  2. Belief has consequences. People used their life savings to put up billboards, finance ad campaigns and give money to Harold Camping and Family Radio. Some people will have lost everything not to mention the embarrassment some will suffer. “Robert Fitzpatrick, of Staten Island, said he was surprised when the six o’clock hour simply came and went. He had spent his own money to put up advertising about the end of the world. “I can’t tell you what I feel right now,” he said, surrounded by tourists. “Obviously, I haven’t understood it correctly because we’re still here.” (Associated Press)
  3. Explanations will come. The usual explanations will be forthcoming: a wrong calculation, a spiritual explanation of how the event really happened, how there was so much faith and repentance that Jesus delayed to give people more time to repent, etc. While it may seem silly to continue trusting in this man, history shows us that many will only deepen their faith and readily accept any explanation. It is hard to admit you are wrong when the stakes are so high. In Old Testament times a false prophet was supposed to be stoned to death.
  4. Belief in a Rapture is just as silly as setting a date. A recent poll has shown that 41% of people believe that the rapture will occur and almost 60% in the South (U.S.) believe it. These people are primed to believe the next set date. They may not have believed Camping, but if a pastor they respect sets a date, they will be sure to follow. This doctrine is just like religion itself, it has no evidence to support it – just faith. It is even worst since the the rapture doctrine is relatively recent in the history of Christianity (Rapture). Belief in an untestable and unsupported hypothesis is silly at best and, as we have recently seen, devastating at worst.
  5. Question everything. Don’t rely on faith. I know Christians are fond of saying that there is enough evidence to warrant faith, but there isn’t. If there was enough evidence, faith would not be needed. Don’t take my word for it, examine the evidence yourself but you have to step outside the Christian bubble and read the “unsafe” non-Christian literature.
  6. Don’t laugh. Ok, you can laugh at the ideas, but not the people. Most were sincerely deluded and some lost everything they had. Everyone makes mistakes. Almost everyone can fall for a properly executed con. Be gentle, maybe you can help these people pick up the pieces and embrace reason, not faith.

It is time that we, as a people, out grow primitive superstitions and embrace the rational. It may be uncomfortable but reality is a much better place to live.

I’ve published a lot of atheist musings here and on Facebook, but no post has generated as much concern or hostility as a simple, hilarious “de-baptism ceremony” conducted at the American Atheist conference. This has brought home to me the importance people place in certain religious ceremonies. Why does baptism cause this particular concern? I think, for many Christians and especially Catholics, baptism symbolizes entrance into the kingdom of God. It is a solemn service and mockery of it is taboo. However, not all baptisms are created equal or are accepted between Christian denominations.

Baptism

The Christian community cannot agree on the mode, purpose or necessity of baptism. Indeed, some denominations refuse to accept the baptism of another denomination especially if it was conducted in a way they disapprove. For example, I was baptized as an infant in the Roman Catholic Church. When I converted to Protestantism, the church I was a member of did not accept that baptism and I had to be re-baptised. That should be an insult greater than any de-baptism!

So what are the differences between denominations? Greater than you might expect.

Who is to be baptized? Are infants to be baptized or only professing believers? If professing believers only are to be baptized, is a mere verbal belief okay or does a person have to have a “valid” profession of belief? What is “valid”? At what age can a profession of belief be considered sincere? If infants are to be baptized, can any infant be baptized? Do both parents have to be Christians? Is it okay for only one to be a Christian or even none?

What does baptism do? Does baptism remove the taint of original sin? Is baptism required to go to heaven? Is it required for salvation? Is it just an outward public ceremony or “witness” that reflects a new found belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior or maybe just Savior?

What is the proper mode of baptism? Sprinkling? Pouring? Immersion? If immersion, is partial immersion sufficient or or must the entire body be immersed in water?

There are also denominations that are opposed to all baptisms.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation says this regarding their de-baptism certificates:

Although our DeBaptismal Certificate has some light touches, we think it’s time to spur some serious public debate over the meaning of baptism. We would like to remind the public that people have been killed, schisms fostered and ‘holy’ wars sparked over debates on when to baptize and how to ‘sprinkle’ babies. Childhoods and peace of mind are still being blighted today by ignorant and vicious sermons promising hell and damnation as a punishment for not being baptized.”

Baptism is not a unified set of beliefs.

De-Baptism

As with some Christians that see baptism as a symbolic act, an atheist de-baptism is simply symbolic. There is no magic, no power, no efficacy in this “ceremony.” However, for some atheists it is a way to put closure on a chapter in their life (The Power of De-Baptisms). The one I attended was hilarious and can easily be seen as mockery (An example). Okay, let’s be honest, it was a mockery if you take Christian Baptism as a solemn religious ceremony. Even some atheists are uncomfortable with de-baptisms and see it as unnecessary, stupid, and immature. That it may be, but isn’t that exactly the point? If baptism is seen as anything other that symbolic by Christians (a minority opinion), then Christian baptism itself is nothing other than “magic” and should be subjected to mockery.

The de-baptism started off with:

“Do you agree that the magical potency of today’s ceremony is exactly equal to the magical efficacy of ceremonial baptism with dihydrogen monoxide, and do you agree that the power of all magical ceremonies is nonexistent?”

Exactly. Let’s think about Catholic baptism for a minute. If it is required to rid the person of original sin so that they can enter the kingdom of heaven, Catholic baptism is literally impossible. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (416-418) says:

“By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all humans. Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called “original sin”. As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called “concupiscence”).”

This might have worked before an understanding of science and evolution, but this statement now is simply nonsense. Man evolved. There was no special creation. There was no Adam. There was no Eve. Without a literal Adam and a literal Eve with a literal Fall there can be no original sin. I don’t care how Catholic theologians want to try to get around this problem, it is simply not possible. Without original sin, the Catholic rite of baptism is meaningless in any way other than a symbolic entrance into the church. The same can be said of any non-symbolic baptismal ceremony. As such, these ideas need to be mocked (ideas can be mocked, people shouldn’t be). They are just plain silly. The only protection they have are the protection of religion. Religion, in general, has been given a pass from this type of criticism. (At least from outside their realm. Within the realm of religion, barbs are regularly shot.) It’s time we stand up and call a spade a spade. The emperor has no clothes. A silly ceremony such as a de-baptism does exactly this.