The “Great Quake of 2011” has given a new reason for some theists to issue dire warnings about their god’s supposed wrath at the world. Never mind that we know why earthquakes happen, that they happen frequently across the globe, or that no one was killed in this one. This quake was a sure sign that Jesus is mad at America. Why is he mad? Well, of course, it is because of the gays.
When I hear these warnings and threats from theists about natural disasters being part of their god’s wrath, I am stupefied by what the warnings imply. For example, given that the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan killed thousands and the “Great Quake of 2011” has killed no one, does that mean that Jesus was somehow angrier at Japan for some perceived wrong-doing than he was at the United States? And if the reason for his anger at the United States really is because of gay marriage, given that the quake killed no one, does that mean he’s not really all that angry about it? Whatever the answer, the message is clear. Jesus is angry at us and will punish the nation for our iniquities.
I am reminded of another side of Jesus that all of these warnings imply. That side of Jesus, according to his followers, who will also kill the righteous for doing the right thing. I’ve written about this idea before regarding this same message in The Room. The idea of Jesus-as-killer of the righteous is a pervasive idea that is supposed to bring some comfort to those who have lost a loved one. It’s not usually framed in this way; normally, god does the killing and Jesus does the saving. But since the two are one and the same, according to the theology, let’s not mince words.
For example, in our area there was a recent tragic death of a young girl in an automobile accident. She was active in her church, wanted to raise money for clean water instead of receiving gifts for her birthday, and by all accounts was highly regarded as a kind, thoughtful person. A number of people were injured in the accident, but she was the only fatality. The pastor of her church was later quoted as saying something like, “let her life serve as a lesson to other young people.” And what a lesson! Be kind, active in your church, think of others before yourself and Jesus just might kill you while you are young, rip you from your family, end the promise that you represent, all in accordance with his supposedly benevolent “plan.”
When we take what believers say about Jesus in sum, we get a wholly twisted picture. Jesus’ wrath is reserved for the wicked on one day and meted out to the righteous on the next. I cannot help but be reminded of the grotesque stories of Roman emperors who killed on a whim, adversaries and loyalists alike. The picture is of Jesus-as-Tyrant, cruel in his fickleness and perverse in his morality. And somehow, throughout all of this, he is supposed to be our savior. No, thank you.
Copyright © 2011 JP Laughlin
A common, but sophomoric, approach taken by some theists while debating atheists is to play a semantic game of redefining religious terms. In a rational argument, this tactic demonstrates nothing short of a dishonest evasion of atheists’ arguments and a general lack of sincere examination. This semantic game ranges from the patently inane version that I call “Gotcha!” to ideas that are given serious consideration by many liberal theists.
Christian apologist, Ray Comfort, is quite proud of his patently inane “Gotcha!” variety. A summary of his game goes like this: in an interview with an evolutionary biologist, Mr. Comfort explains that in the Bible the words “soul” and “life” are synonymous. Therefore, he argues, when the Bible refers to the human “soul” it really means human “life.” When the biologist agrees that under those terms if everbody has a life, then they have a soul, Mr. Comfort exclaims “He changed his mind!”
Needless to say (at least, it should be needless to say) that this is nonsense. Mr. Comfort’s idea of a soul is much, much more than this. Missing from his game is the concept that this soul survives after the death of the body. It’s a very important detail to leave out and its absence makes Mr. Comfort both dishonest and disrespectful to the biologist in question. This tactic is pointless and worthy of our scorn.
Others who use the semantic game, however, employ it in more subtle ways that even they may not be aware of. Any atheist who first asks a theist to define what they mean by the term “god,” implicitly understands this tactic. It is the redefinition of god into a nebulous abstraction. Examples of it include, “god” is: First Cause, Love itself, “transcendental fullness of actualities” (David Hart), and “not a being, god is being” (Paul Tillich resurrected via Jeffrey Small). I do not mean to imply that these abstractions are created for the purposes of a semantic game. In fact, they are quite likely sincere defensive reactions that allow theists to retain their belief in a god in the context of a modern milieu. It is a milieu in which tyrannical father-types are villainous at best. Having stretched the meaning of “god” into a “higher” concept the theist is now free to retain their belief in the face of scientific evidence that questions, calls into doubt, or falsifies more and more religious claims.
Sometimes theists can even get an atheist to agree with this semantic ruse. God is love itself…ok, we cannot say that there’s no evidence for love. God is being itself…Ok, we exist (well, maybe not the solipsists). But even when, or if, an atheist will make this step towards the theist’s position (usually for the sake of argument), the theist cannot then provide sound evidence that this abstraction is concomitantly a personal deity (their specific god) without a healthy dose of mental gymnastics. Sigmund Freud, whatever else we may feel about his psychoanalysis, observed this tactic in the early 1900’s:
Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense; by calling “God” some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves, they pose as deists, as believers, before the world; they may even pride themselves on having attained a higher, purer idea of God, although their God is nothing but an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrine. — The Future of an Illusion
Of course, the elephant in the room here is that this is decidedly not what most believers mean when they define “god.” In a 2008 Pew Research report, 60% believe in a personal god compared with 25% who believe it to be an impersonal force. We all could do our own informal research by asking similar questions. I have no doubt that these would demonstrate the same conclusion.
But just what do these abstractions have to do with ancient texts from remote locations on the globe? This is a particularly poignant question given that these same religious texts often contradict these “higher” abstractions. It takes a lot of strained and convoluted logic to get to “point B” in these cases, if they even make it at all.
Shifting the definitions of religious terms does not constitute sound or sufficient evidence that a god exists. In other words, we cannot presuppose a god and then define this god into existence. However, this semantic game is a powerful inoculation against doubt in the face of dis-confirming evidence. For atheists, this is the extent to which we should take it seriously.
Copyright © 2011 JP Laughlin