Saturday, 14 April 2012

Week 8: Does God heal today?
Ah yes, good old faith healing. Works about as well as homeopathy.

Part 1: The Talk
No Gumbel for this one fortunately.

The speaker starts of by rattling out a few anecdotes about healing, one member of this church was healed by God apparently. I don't doubt the truth of many of these stories you always hear, people naturally recover all the time.
One thing I do like to ask however, what about perfectly healthy people who just drop dead randomly. A big one in the news at the moment is Fabrice Muamba, who everyone is wishing a speedy recovery to. These happen a lot too, about the same amount as miracle recoveries. All they show is that the human body is incredibly complicated, being a biology student I know this. If the recovery happens while someone if being prayed for that doesn't mean that the praying caused it, cum hoc ergo propter hoc.

"You may be thinking of televangelist healers, punching people in the face in God's name. That isn't the only way, or even the most common way God heals."
I should bloody well hope not, Peter Popoff was a televangelist and exposed as a fraud, it does not surprise me Christians want to distance themselves from this guy.
When the adrenaline, and other hormones, is rushing people can overcome great pain. Add the Placebo effect to the equation and you have what look like miracles.
In the discussions I share an anecdote about my friend/team-mate/housemate who was stupid enough to stand on a nail and not notice.

"Physical healing is not the only way God heals, he heals people spiritually."
Ah yes the spirit, that unmeasurable, undefinable and generally undetectable argument from ignorance.
"He can heal through words of knowledge."
Now this is something I have never encountered before, apparently God passes down words of knowledge to people in the congregation, they write them down then read them out and people can see if they apply to them. Sound familiar?
"God gives some people, like doctors, healing abilities."
You're shitting me? Now he's just inserting God in wherever he can to make sure God get's the credit. What about the years the doctor spent in Med School? Or the researchers spending years developing treatments?
"God gave Nicky Gumbel the ability to tell people about Jesus."
Yet Nicky still sucks at it.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Week 7: Why and How Should We Tell Others?
This is something a lot of people share their opinions on, some cannot stand evangelising and other just think they're doing what they think is right.
My apologies for the lateness, a lot has happened with friends family and Uni (I am sick of fruit flies) but these should continue as usual for the next instalment.

Part 1: The Talk
Gumbel starts by telling us he used to be an atheist, this I don't doubt and I think may be one of the few honest statements he's made, who was irritated by Christians who evangelise.
I don't have that much of a problem with it, I'm always open to hearing other people's views and opinions. Constantly challenging your own views is one of the best ways to make sure you have the correct one. Christians believe they are doing the right thing, however the difference is this: I change my mind based on evidence, that is part of skepticism. You can demand evidence for everything, but when it is provided you have to actually consider it, if you are shown to be wrong accept it and move on.

Christianity has defence mechanisms against disbelief though, the whole concept of hell and punishment for non-believers is just one way to stop people questioning, as I said in an earlier post.

"People are looking for meaning in their lives, and in Christ we have an answer."
Non-Christians need to hear this apparently, Gumbel compares it to finding an oasis in a desert, you'd want to tell your friends. I think this is a great comparison, since people often see illusions in times of stress. If your friend kept telling you there was an oasis but can't show you any evidence of it, you'd ignore him. These types of arguments are based on Pascal's Wager.
We are told that when converting people we should "Establish a need for Jesus in their lives." To me this sounds like being told to lie to someone. I'd love to know how he feels about people establishing a need for Santa in other's lives.
But it's worse than that, it's telling people they need this to function, to be good, to not be tortured forever, it is emotional abuse.

Gumbel shares 5 points on why Christianity is a good thing:

1: Presence
The passage Matthew 5:13-16 is shared with us.
"Christians are the salt of the Earth, before refrigeration people used salt to stop meat going bad, Christians do that with society."
It's not like there have been any Christians (or groups of them) who ruin certain aspects of society (sorry but I had to throw a Kony reference in here, I'm sick of hearing about him too and could probably rant for hours about what is wrong with that video and Invisible Children).
As if I managed to mention bad Christians without conforming to Godwin's Law......fuck.
It's funny how the majority of theocracies around the world fail miserably in terms of human rights, how Christianity, in the USA at least, is the most vocal advocate against same sex marriage.

Needless to say Gumbel goes all spotlight and mentions William Wilberforce, a key figure in slavery abolishment and also evangelical Christian. I couldn't help but remember a certain quote:
"Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things, that takes religion." - Steven Weinberg.

2: Persuasion
You must persuade people to join Christianity, it is not one big leap of faith apparently, it is a "Reasonable step of faith." Reasonable faith? Well there is an oxymoron.
Gumbel mentions again the PRATT about science and Christianity never colliding and how the Bible has been 100% confirmed.
Well has it? There is no archaeological evidence of the Exodus, no records of Jews being kept as slaves by the Egyptians, no record of Moses ever existing.
I have heard this claim before, from friends as well, it is just a blind assertion. When you ask for evidence they say "It just has." or "Go look it up." No citations provided.

3: Proclamation
Gumbel shares a passage from John in which Jesus is referred to as the one Moses wrote about, funny how the laws of Moses don't apply any more according to some Christians (there is a lot of debate on this, some believe just the Sacrificial laws no longer apply and that Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice, others that only the 10 commandments apply the question then is which commandments? These or These and wasn't the whole Bible, including Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers inspired by God).

4: Power
Yeah we all know about God's power, appearing on toast nowadays takes loads of power.

5: Prayer
Seriously? There is a great saying I heard: "Nothing fails like prayer, except abstinence only education".
I have covered prayer before so let's move on.

Part 2: The Discussion
I tried recording it on my phone to test an idea so let's see if it worked:

It worked but I speak far too quickly.
"If you did not know anything about Christianity how would you like to be told about it?"
Well honestly for once would be nice.
"Has anybody told anyone they are doing the Alpha Course?"
"Yeah I've told pretty much everyone I know, I have a blog about it too." (shameless self plug).
Some other members had and some hadn't.
"What kind of reaction did you get?"
"A good one from a friend of mine [name kept secret] was 'But why are you doing it you make Dawkins look moderate'."
"People do react weirdly when you talk to them about church and religion in general. A lot of people don't know what to say or make judgements about you."
Religion has always been something I'm open to discussing, normally I will be the first to state my opinion on a wide variety of subjects, particularly ones of science such as alternative medicine and other woo.

"What answer would you give to someone who said Christianity should be a private matter?"
"I have no problem with people being vocal about it, however there is a saying I use: You can say what you like, if I don't agree you'll find out."
The saying is actually 'Say what you like, but if you say something stupid don't be surprised when you get flayed alive' it's a great little sound bite.
"I feel it is a good thing to spread the Gospel, it saves people."
"What about if someone comes to your house telling you its on fire, you run outside but it isn't. I'd be thankful they were looking out for me, but if they did it again and again and said 'you're house could catch fire soon so get out now' you wouldn't be happy."
"Say for Christians once you've told them they can do what they want, for example: Your house might catch fire and you should leave it just in case."
Sensing Pascal's Wager I add.
"My new house could catch fire as well."
"If you believe that then you want to tell people about it."
"Pretty much all religions have consequences for non believers though."
"Well I imagine they want to do that as well."

"How do you feel about people telling you about Christianity or other religions?"
Another member says "It depends how they do it, standing around yelling you will burn in hell if you don't isn't the best way."
"Isn't that one way of establishing the need for Jesus in their lives?"

As nobody else is asking questions I feel I have to ask
"When Gumbel says Christians are the salt of the Earth, that it is your job to stop society going wrong to keep society well. Would you agree with that considering that the vast majority of Theocracies in the world are, for want of a better term, not well? If you look at history such as the Inquisitions, in Europe and Spain, which NOBODY EXPECTED, it's generally been the separation of Church and State that has benefited society the most."
"Well that's people with power, give people enough power without any checks and balances, power corrupts, I'm not sure that's an argument against religion."
"There is a movement in America called dominionism, it's a group trying to get the law of the Bible as law."
"Is it a big movement?"
"I think Michelle Bachmann supported it."
Shocked looks all around there.

"There is a lot of good moral guidance in the Bible though."
"There is a lot of bad moral guidance in there too, opposition to homosexuality and supporting slavery for example."
"Are they both together."
"Not together but they are both things supported explicitly in the New Testament."
"The reason it doesn't agree with homosexuality is because God defined marriage as being between a man and a woman so it isn't marriage."
Before I can respond another member says.
"It certainly doesn't agree with slavery."
"Epehesians 6:5 and 1 Peter 2:18 both explicitly support slavery."
Oh come on who didn't see that coming? Please somebody find me somewhere in the bible it explicitly says Thou shalt not own another human being as a slave or something along those lines, there is Philemon where Paul tries to get his friend out of slavery but that's it. Not to mention the entire OT where slavery is supported by God.
"Okay and the context is?"
"If in that society they had slaves then yeah the Bible says they should obey their masters. It's not saying go out and have slaves. It is in the context of that time."
"Was the Bible not meant for all time?"
"Yes but there is also context, you can't just pick out certain bits. Ephesians was written to a specific church at that time and in that time slaves did have masters so were instructed to follow them."
"Could Paul have not written to them to release the slaves?"
"But that would have been a major thing at the time, that's like saying women all have votes and free choice, it would have been great but wouldn't have happened it was too revolutionary."
And a new religion wasn't too revolutionary?

"How do you think the best way to answer people's questions is?"
Yeah that was the ultimate laconic response.
The session ends here unfortunately.

Once again thanks to everyone for reading, please share this around if you like it and all comments/questions welcome.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Weekend Part 2
This is the part where the 'good' stuff happens. Even more kool-aid than the last instalment.

Talk 4: How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?
You can see this coming now.

Part 1: The Talk
The speaker, the church leader of this Alpha course, starts:
"There are 2 types of Christian."
Expecting a no true Scotsman but thankfully there wasn't.
"The first are like my boiler, they have only a little bit of the Holy Spirit in them, like the pilot light on my boiler so I call them Pilot Light Christians. The second are like my boiler but when I put it on full blast, it makes this POOMPH! sound, they are filled with the Holy Spirit and overflowing with it, I call them POOMPH! Christians."
This was all well and good until he continued on:
"There are 5 types of people who are not filled with the Holy Spirit:
1: Those who are longing to be filled, I would say this is where you all are. Longing to be filled with the Holy Spirit and you will be.
2: Receptive, where you were at the beginning of this course, those who want to be filled but need a bit more education.
3: Hostile, the people who do not want to be filled and are vehemently opposed to the idea of Christianity.
4: The Uninformed, those who simply have not heard of the Holy Spirit, it is your job to educate them.
5: The Non-Religious, those who have decided religion is simply not for them."
Hard to decide which of these I fall into, although I'm sure most people think I belong in the 3rd.

"When people convert to Christianity and are filled with the Holy Spirit, they change..."
I heard this A LOT over the weekend, it's a tired old argument that can be applied to all religions.
"...people experience a warm feeling inside"
Seriously? Subjective experiences are common to all religions, as well as non-religious experiences.
"You can't do science on it, for example when you meet someone you love and you get that tingling in the spine etc. you don't go to a lab to analyse the tingling in the spine do you?"
This is another entirely subjective experience.
"As Christians we follow our emotions."
I will always advocate following reason over emotion when the 2 collide, although I may sound like Spock when I do, there are times when you should follow emotions, but this isn't one of them. It was as if he read my mind when he said:
"We do have evidence of the supernatural, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues and interpreting are both obviously supernatural."
Really? This is supernatural? That's pretty much what speaking in tongues is. Interpreting it is unverifiable. At this point the speaker chains a load of emotional appeals together and finishes.
Unfortunately no discussion group followed but what did, was indeed a whole lot weirder.

The speaker started with a prayer, then invited the Holy Spirit to fill the room and everyone in it, so much for omnipresence. At the end of the prayer he asked everyone to remain seated, be silent and wait to be filled with the Holy Spirit, this is where it got interesting.
An older male member suddenly bursts into tears, followed by a few others. One starts spurting out random gibberish I assumed this is speaking in tongues, I had never heard it before. This was honestly the freakiest shit I'd seen in a while.
A senior member of the church came over to me and asked if I wanted to be prayed for, I motioned to my friend who was crying and said he needed it more. Another member came over and asked so I obliged.
We went to the corner of the room with Mark and another member. We sat there and prayed, after we had finished one of the members started speaking in tongues and shaking, it was absolutely hilarious and I had to hold back the laughter. Apparently the expression on my face gave them the impression the Holy Spirit ready to burst out of me, the temptation to scream "BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD, SKULLS FOR THE SKULL THRONE" was forcibly held back.

Talk 5: How can we make the most of the rest of our lives?
This is the only life we can be sure we have, we should not waste it on childish superstitions. This is a bit of a short one and there wasn't time for a real discussion group.

Part 1: The Presentation
"There are no dress rehearsals, you are thrown straight into life, Romans 12:1-2 says do not conform to the patterns of this world."
"Instead of following the crowd we should stick to God's standards."
Is he saying we should follow authority unquestioningly? Milgram Experiment.
"God created marriage and we should stick to his standards, it was Adam and Eve for a reason."
Is he subtly bashing homosexual marriage, also marriage is older than the bible.

"God created sex, and there is no such thing as casual sex, it's like when you take 2 pieces of cardboard, and glue them together to represent the act of sex, once you've had sex the cardboard cannot be separated without damaging it."
Wow, this is the single worst analogy I've heard in my life. I recommend the speaker looks at the Bonobo Chimps who have an insane amount of sex, and some species of whiptail lizards (specifically the New Mexico Whiptail), who reproduce via parthenogenesis i.e. virgin births.

"Love can only come from God."
Love comes from a variety of places, a hormone associated with it is Oxytocin. People who don't believe in your god can still feel love and indeed do.

"The greatest act of love was Jesus's sacrifice."
Bullshit, you can't even verify that he existed, which is strange since Muhammad and Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha can be shown to have existed, even if he did exist he wasn't the only one who was crucified. Also, and I really need to say this, IT WASN'T A SACRIFICE, sacrifice means loss, what did God/Jesus lose? Nothing at all, at least when Elvis died for my sins he stayed dead (unless you're a conspiracy nutjob).
Unfortunately this was where it ended, or at least where my notes did.

Week 6: How do I resist Evil?
A fair bit of Kool-Aid

Part 1: The Presentation
Back to Gumbel unfortunately.
He starts by setting himself up as a Skeptic saying how he found it hard to believe in God but harder to believe in the Devil.

"Why should we believe in a spiritual evil? Because it makes sense."
Does it really, this is quite an assertion. I'll admit bad stuff happens, really bad, but that is no reason to posit anything spiritual as just a blanket assertion. You can't answer a mystery with another mystery, but what Gumbel is doing is worse, he is making up a mystery and trying to shoehorn his God into it.
"Any theology that does not include spiritual evil has a lot to explain."
Does it? An example of what it has to explain would have been nice, like I said we see horrific things happening, but evil is a label we apply to actions based on their effect on others and society. We can use empathy to imagine if someone did that to us whether we would like it or not and base morality on that.

This was my favourite:
"If you take God and add one letter you get Good, if you take Devil and take one letter you get Evil."

Are you kidding? The Bible wasn't written in English mate
Gumbel gives 3.reasons to believe in a spiritual evil:
1: Bad things happen
2: Personal Experience
3: The Bible
Total non-sequitur, 2 and 3 are totally bullshit and the first one needs no spiritual element.

"The devil's tactic is to destroy us by causing doubt, we see how he did it in Genesis by telling Eve she did not have to listen to God."
This is just one big self defence mechanism against disbelief, this is what I hate about religions, they use intimidation and bullying to avoid questions, this is why it is so pervasive in society, not because it's true but because you are not allowed to question.
"God did not want us to know evil, only good."
Well surely it would have been better not to put the tree in Eden in the first place, it's like putting a loaded gun in a toddler's crib and then blaming it when it shoots itself.

Gumbel gallops from point to point, mostly stuff I have talked about before like healing anecdotes, so I won't go into details.

Part 2: The Discussion
This is another short on I'm afraid.
The first question is
"Does the Devil speak through other people."
Followed by a subtle glance at me, cheers for that when you read this.

The answer given is of course Yes, I would answer that he doesn't even exist but I didn't want to get into that.
I lead with this:
"The whole concept of the Devil and Hell is just a defence mechanism against questioning, it is how the religion keeps believers in line."

Needless to say nobody agrees with me so I move onto the problem of evil.
"You believe God is Omniscient, Omnipresent, Omnipotent and Omni-benevolent."
"And yet you believe he allows evil despite having those traits?"
"Yes he will not interfere with free will."
"Is there free will in heaven?"
"In heaven everything is so perfect I would not care to make decisions."

I think that is a no, so clearly God does not care for free will since heaven is his perfection. I will admit this is a bad question since if they answer:
Yes: Then you can have free will without Evil,

No: Then God does interfere with free will.
We circled around on these points without me getting a definite answer from anyone.
But on the point of free will, having free will does not equate to having the right to harm others, it also doesn't account for harm that is not caused by free will, but they will obviously just say "Fall did it".
I am sick of these escape hatches, they are just blind assertions and when you ask how they know this the answer is always "Bible says so."

Thanks for reading guys, all comments welcome and I'm sorry for the short ones.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Alpha Weekend
Just back in from the weekend and wow!
I hope you are sat somewhere comfortable and have a strong drink at hand (preferably not Kool-Aid since I've had enough of that this weekend), I have a lot to write about.

Talk 1: How does God guide us?
I think by this point everyone on the course is supposed to be a believer so the talks are directed at what to believe rather than why.

Part 1: The Talk
This talk, as with all on the weekend, was not given by Nicky Gumbel. Which was a relief to say the least.

The speaker, one of the senior members of the church, starts by making everyone relax. He tells us be silent and listen for God. The exercise seemed similar to meditation, most religions have something similar to this and the experiences people have are usually similar too. It is interesting to note the experiences always match the current religion of the person/the people around them. I'm waiting for stories of a group of Catholics praying and speaking to Khorne, better yet being possessed by Khorne's spirit. This passage blatantly means a Bloodthirster:

Revelation 13:11
Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth.  He had two horns like a lamb and he spoke like a dragon.
Unfortunately the Bloodthirster's ability on the tabletop doesn't really live up to the expectations set up by the stories in the Codex, sound familiar?

The speaker likens us to sheep, he says that we have gone astray due to our sin. Though why God hates sine waves is beyond me.
To me sin (violation of God's law) is a meaningless concept, one cannot make reference to sin without making reference to a deity, so accusing me of sinning (or threatening me with the consequences) is pointless since I don't believe in God. As a Humanist I can grade actions to be right or wrong based on the effects they have on people and on society.
It is interesting to note that believers say that sin and evil cannot exist in God's presence, yet God is omnipresent, I hope you can see where I am going.

According to the presentation the Bible is only 85-90% of God's guidance, the rest is revealed through private revelations and God's voice speaking to us internally.
Testable - Nope
Falsifiable - Nope
Entirely Subjective - You  Bet!
At this point I distinctively think of Andrea Yates, who heard God's voice instructing her to kill her kids to save them from the sins of the world.
At a later point at the weekend I ask some members what they thought happened to un-baptised babies who died. They thought they went to Heaven, which I thought was reasonable enough. However this was the motivation for what Andrea Yates did, she sacrificed her chance in heaven to guarantee he children's.
As I brought this point up I was corrected that she could be forgiven and go to heaven as well which left me rather stunned.
The question of what happens to non christian babies is difficult to answer in this respect.
A: They go to heaven, which was the motivation for Andrea Yates.
B: They go to hell, which means you have God torturing babies.
Back on topic...

A few anecdotes about successful prayer were shared, I've heard plenty of these now, for all religions.
God requires tax, apparently Kent Hovind didn't get that memo, and that Jesus treated everyone with love and respect...
...Except when he charged into a church brandishing a whip, all this assuming the Bible is an accurate account of his life.

We are told we should pick any scripture (I leapt at the nearest bible straight to Leviticus), then that is must be from the NT (oh well straight to 1 Timothy it is), and that it must be one of the parables (sick of the moving goalposts I decided to put the bible down at this point). This will prove the authenticity of the bible apparently. The speaker then says that everything in the bible is verified by archaeology and history, funnily enough there is no evidence the Jews were ever enslaved in Egypt, or that Moses ever existed or of the Exodus. I'm not even on to the flood yet.

Continuing on the speaker says that there are 5 ways to know God, Reading the Bible, Studying the Bible, Memorise verses, Meditate and Listen for God's voice. The last 2 again are entirely subjective, and the first 3 beg the question that the Bible is valid, I see a lot of circular reasoning over the weekend.
A great quote from the speaker: "Fear is False Expectations Appearing Real and faith removes all fear". My internal monologue screaming bullshit at me right now he continues on to another great quote: "Common sense is God's gift to us".
This brings 2 quotes into my head, the first is Sagan:
"The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counter-intuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true."
The second is unsourced:
"Common sense, so rare it may as well be a superpower".

Common sense is just an opinion formed on quick observations and only basic rationality, it is a group of basic rules about reality that we observe. It is not that reliable in determining reality, fair enough in everyday life use common sense by all means but is common sense any use at the quantum level or with relativity?
The talk concludes here and we move off into our discussion groups.

Part 2: The discussion
We have no Mary this weekend so the group is led by another member, but Mark is back so all is not lost.

The first question is one of making a decision, in a difficult position most members say they will pray and ask God for an answer. I say I will consider the consequences and benefits of each option.
Mark has an anecdote about how he was going through a tough time finding a job, he asked his pastor and the pastor told him God had spoken to him and said to go for job X. Mark went for job X, still has it and enjoys it. All religions have these anecdotes, they are not evidence of anything supernatural.

The discussion moves on to free will, a member asserts that free will was God's gift to us, and that he doesn't reveal himself to everyone because it would violate their free will. But God revealed himself to Satan and this did not violate Satan's free will. I kept this thought to myself and instead responded by asking if, with God being omniscient is compatible with free will. That is to say if God knows everything that is going to happen and every decision we are going to make do we really make the decision?
The mental gymnastics that followed were amusing. (italics is them)
"It's like when you're at a crossroad, God knows what happens when you go left, and when you go right, you can make the decision between left and right"
"But God also knows which way you will go as well as what will happen since he is ALL-knowing"
"If I play a computer game a second time I know what will happen but I can do things differently and still have the same story"
"And yet God knows if you will do things different or not, it is more like watching a movie a second time".
We go round and round in circles and the question never gets answered until we get this:
"I don't think it's a meaningful question, there is no point even asking it since I know God to be real".
"So you just ignore any questions that might challenge your faith?"
"There are lots of difficult questions, who created God being one of them, but it is meaningless since God always existed"
"2 things, firstly why would you say 'who' and secondly if it is OK to assert that God always existed, is it not also OK to assert the universe existed and remove the unnecessary step in the chain?"
"Well the universe didn't always exist, we know that"
"How?" I am preparing for Kalam now but another member interjects to bring us back on topic.

I ask how we can tell who is right when talking about God's guidance when people get contradictory answers to prayers. Mark brings up the later part of Mark 16:17 (which isn't in earlier manuscripts) about speaking in tongues and driving out demons, I reference the verse after about drinking deadly poisons and handling snakes and ask if anyone would like to try it, unsurprisingly none do.

Talk 2: Who is the holy spirit
My first opinion on the title of the talk was that rather than using the term what they ask 'who' as if it has to have human like qualities.

Part 1: The Presentation
The speaker starts with an analogy I've never heard before:
God is like Aquafresh toothpaste, hopefully you can see where the is going.

Aquafresh has three parts, red white and blue, each performs a different function.
God has three parts, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each performs a different function.
In a Gish Galloping way the speaker moves straight onto the creation account in Genesis 1 then straight onto personal experiences of the Holy Spirit, similar to the Ham Hightail.
The speaker shares an anecdote about a girl practising witchcraft in a village and how the Holy Spirit saved her.
WAIT, YOU FUCKING WHAT!!!!?!?!??!!?!??

Yeah you read that correctly, witchcraft.
I just sat there stunned at this point, was the speaker actually being serious at this point, who knows.

"The holy spirit fills us, as Christians we can feel it, it empowers and guides us". 

Sound familiar? It did to me but I couldn't think of where at the time, but suppose I do this:
"The holy spirit force fills us, as Christians Jedi we can feel it, it empowers and guides us". 
Boom, instant Yoda.
The joking aside, shall I put.

"It is the Holy Spirit you feel when reading the Bible".
What is it when a Muslim reads the Qur'an or a Hindu with the Bhagavad Ghita then? Experiences, as I have said numerous times, are purely subjective. If a person thinks they are Napoleon you lock them up in a mental institute, but if they think they talk to God that's fine. Funny how when people's ideas of God conflict there is no objective way of verifying one or the other, also funny is how God always seems to agree with the one interpreting him, and have the same knowledge as them. Nobody possessed by the holy spirit gave us relativity did they?

"The Holy Spirit is the source of all human love and compassion"
No it isn't. The brain is.
You can have, and share, love and compassion without God. Look at all the great things Norman Borlaug did, he wasn't religious.
The speaker ends here, I only wrote a little about this talk since it was about personal experiences which I have covered repeatedly.

Part 2: The Discussion

The first question was "What is the connection between Jesus and the Holy Spirit?"
My internal monologue screamed "Well they're both imaginary for a start".
But inevitably anecdotes about peoples experiences of the 2 are shared en masse.

The comparison between the trinity and Polytheism is made.
"Christianity is not Polytheism because they are all part of the same God"
"But they are separate entities, like Thor and Odin are part of the same Pantheon"
Attempting to define the trinity is difficult and usually ends up breaking either the Law of Identity or the Law of Non-Contradiction. Almost like the Logic test of 1984 (I am a fan of Orwell).
The gods of many polytheistic religions are very anthropomorphic, as is God in the OT. They have human emotions, they perform human tasks, they make mistakes, they are depicted as humans or at least of human figure.

I'm getting sick of the anecdotes now but they keep flowing,
"I certainly felt a difference after I was became a Christian"
"I noticed differences in my friends when they joined Christianity"
"But were those changes supernatural or can the same change be caused by other, non-supernatural, events? We see people change for a variety of reasons, not all changes caused by conversions are improvements".
We talk about morality for a while and I ask if you can be good without God.
One member replied with
"If I didn't have my belief in God I would have no motivation to be good"
I must commend the member on their honesty at this point he believes he wouldn't have motivation, however I get my motivation from my rationalism and humanism.

DVD: Science vs Religion
This was my favourite part of the weekend, by far.
A few of the members decided to watch a DVD called Science vs Religion, it was just one long lecture of bullshit, and I wasn't the only one who thought that. It appears I had fellow Biology students there, smart ones too, but I was still the lone non-believer.
One of them requested that the DVD was turned off after 10 minutes but believe there was enough factual errors for me to facepalm with such frequency Mark, not a natural scientist, thought I had been possessed.
As you can probably guess it was based primarily on Kalam Cosmological and the Teleological Argument (each link leads to a different page, 2 per argument), the 2 that I encounter most frequently and both are based on either misrepresentation of science or downright dishonesty. Here I will dismantle the 2 main points of his argument:

Claim 1:
"If the Earth was a few miles further away from the sun, or a few miles closer there would be no life."
Funny how the Earth's orbit varies by as much as 5,000,000km due to it's elliptical orbit, Kasting et al (1993) estimated that, for planets similar to Earth, the Earth could be 5% closer to the sun or up to 37% further away and still be habitable. I have heard estimates of around 25% closer and up to 200% further away but I have been provided no reliable citations so I will stick with the first set of figures. So this claim is wrong.

Claim 2:
"If the Oxygen concentration in Earth's atmosphere varied even by 1 or 2% there would be no life".
Well anyone can tell you this is bullshit, in fact this is the one the other biologists noted, simply because some life in anaerobic. The current concentration of Oxygen, by volume, in the atmosphere is around 20.95%. During the carboniferous era this concentration was as high as 32% as this German graph shows, a graph of time (in million years ago, x axis) and oxygen concentration (y axis).
This was where the DVD was turned off and I had a short discussion with fellow biologists, mainly about mutual friends on the course, I couldn't help myself but I had to say
"You'd think if it was real you wouldn't need to lie about it".

We return the DVD to one of the church leaders who asks why we stopped watching it so early.
"Anyone with even a basic knowledge in natural sciences can dismantle everything he says, he lies repeatedly throughout, we only watched 10 minutes and I have already made a full page of corrections and rebuttals".

His response:
"I think you are being distracted by certain things, you should watch it again when you can focus, distractions make it hard to focus".
Yeah he went there, that reality thing can be very distracting.

Talk 3: What does the Holy Spirit do?
This one was very Yoda-esque.

Part 1: The Presentation
The speaker starts with John 3:3
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.
The speaker continues:
"To be born again means to be filled with the Holy Spirit,
St Paul says in Romans 8:1-2 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 
Jesus came and set us free of our sin, to be born again and filled with the Holy Spirit allows us to be forgiven of our sins"
Sin is a worthless concept, as I said before. So to be forgiven of it is pointless.
"Romans 8:14-17 says that we become God's children, the word used is Abba, which is similar to our word Dad or Daddy, but not as childish, if we are children, we are heirs, heirs to God's glory and kingdom"
Heir's only only get inheritance after the death of the person they are heirs too. A few anecdotes about adoption are shared, about how we can be brought into a family if not born into it, I'm sure you can all see where this is going.
"God loves us all, he loves everyone of us, he is all loving"
The just brings up the problem of evil, which I think I have referenced before.
Here is Epicurus's version

If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able to, Then He is not omnipotent.
If He is able, but not willing, Then He is malevolent.
If He is both able and willing, Then whence cometh evil?
If He is neither able nor willing, Then why call Him God?

The speaker moves on to the gifts of the spirit, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues etc. both of which I saw a decent amount of this weekend.

Part 2: The Discussion
The first question is what do we think the Holy Spirit's job is?
I have no answer for this question just like I don't have an answer for the question of "What do you think the green man on Jupiter's job is or what flavour crisps he prefers?" - I don't believe he/it exists in the first place so it's characteristics aren't worth discussion.
"The job of the Holy Spirit is to turn people into Christians, you receive a calling to come to God, the Holy Spirit helps us pray and guides us".
Another member adds
"After you become a Christian your life changes"
"Is this change always for the better though? and the same change is seen when people convert to other religions. What makes Christianity unique among them?"
The tired old point that Christianity is a relationship with God is repeated ad nauseam.

This made me laugh:
"It's like the Matrix, you can take the blue pill and ignore God or you can take the red pill and realise that God is real and wants to have a relationship with you". I won't respond to this here though.

"Would you say we are saved by faith or by works?"
This is interesting, simply because it means that no matter what you do in this world you can get into heaven through faith.
"It's like when your stuck in a room with only one way out and something coming to destroy the room, a trapdoor in the ceiling, someone, God, is trying to help you out, but you have a huge backpack full of bricks, your sin, you have to get rid of, by faith in Jesus's sacrifice, before he can save you".
"What are we being saved from exactly?"
"God's Wrath".
"So he sacrificed himself to himself to save us from rules he himself created, couldn't he just click his fingers and achieve the same goal, what is the significance of blood?"
This goes unanswered.

"If you look at things that are sinful like murder we know these harm society"
"Just thinking about someone on anger is murder, anyone read 1984? this is a thought crime." (Yes, I am a big fan of Orwell).

"If you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit you have to want it and be committed in your heart".
Convenient how you have to already believe before you get any evidence.
"I don't want to go to hell, so I believe".
Pascal's wager.

"All are equal in the eyes of God".
"Except some are more equal than others, since they go to Heaven".
And on this I will end for now, 2 more talks from weekend and the one from this Tuesday still in the works.
All feedback welcome and if you enjoyed this, share it with your friends so that they may enjoy it too.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Afternoon with the LDS: Meet the Mormons
After spending about 1/2 an hour looking for the Mormon church (on a science park of all places!) I meet with 2 of their Elders (apparently you become an elder around age 18).
After the prayer we begin to discuss their beliefs.
(Italic is them)
"We believe that the Lord our God is our loving heavenly father."
"Because when we pray he answers."
"Does he speak to you directly, do you hear his voice?"
"Not all the time, he speaks to us in a variety of ways, sometimes it is just a warm feeling in our hearts."
"Well my heart does no thinking, it pumps blood. However all religions say the same thing, a warm feeling in the member's hearts, pretty much those exact words, they are entirely subjective, why is your's any different?"
"I know there is something more when I pray."

My first thoughts are that this hasn't answered my questions at all, the personal experiences of any person are entirely subjective, they are not independently verifiable. If we based our beliefs on personal experiences we would have to believe in alien abductions and other nuts.
"Is there anything in the Bible you disagree with?"
"Not at all, we believe it is the literal word of God."
-Let's see if I can have some fun with these guys-
"What do you think of homosexuality?"
"We oppose it, that doesn't make us popular but we oppose it. We believe it was Adam and Eve for a reason, not Adam and Steve. Homosexuality is unchaste, there can be no sex outside of marriage just as God decreed. We believe it is the function of marriage, and therefore sex, to procreate. Homosexuals cannot do this."
"What about IVF, lesbian couples can have children in this way."
"We believe that is interfering with God's plan."
"Can God's plan be changed? Doesn't he know exactly what's going to happen at any time all the time, being omniscient?"
"Yes, but people still have free will, he knows what will happen but gives us the choice."
"How? He knows what choice we will make, he knows when, it is predetermined in his plan."
"We do not agree."
That was their only response to the objection, just a blanket assertion that they do not agree.

"What religion are you?"
"I'm not."
"You must be, what belief system do you follow."
"I don't." 
"Are you an atheist?"
"That's not the term I use, I describe myself as a Humanist, but this is not a religion since there is no supernatural belief or rigid belief system."
"Do you believe in evolution?"
-This is when it hits me: Holy fuck these guys are creationists!-
"It is the best explanation of the diversity of life, it is not linked to atheism though."
"Why do you believe it?"
"I'm a Genetics and Biochemistry student, I have a good understanding of the evidence that supports it." (My Yorkshire accent really spiked at this point, actually laughing at my recording).
"Such as?"
"Endogenous retroviruses for one example, homology, genetics, observed speciation events, fossil evidence."
"OK. We don't accept that."
Again, not actual reason why, just the assertion.
After this we just kept going around in circles and nothing important really got mention so I will end it here.
Now, on to the Alpha that evening:

Week 5: Why and How do we read the Bible?
With more than just a pinch of salt I should say.

Part 1: The video

Gumbel starts with an anecdote about him smuggling bibles into Soviet Russia. I personally thought medical textbooks may have been more help.
He tells us how the bible is the single most influential book ever, how it sells 44,000,000 copies a year. My thoughts on that matter are that Twilight sells a lot too, that doesn't make it good (more on this in discussion).
We are told how it changes peoples lives and societies. Most religious texts change people, some non religious texts change people, this has no bearing on the truth of the Bible's claims.

In a fit of immense stupidity Gumbel defines science as the study of God through his creation. Just let that sink in before reading on.
Science, the single best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works apparently presupposes God's existence. Presuppositions being one of the main sources of bullshit around, look at the MMR vaccine scare, people started with the presupposition that MMR caused autism and ignored contradicting evidence. Presuppositionalism is a common tactic in apologetics.

Gumbel asserts there can be no true conflict between science and religion. Really Nicky? Do you actually believe that Nicky?
He shares with us an Einstein quote: "Religion without science is blind, science without religion is lame."
Yet it is known that Einstein was not a Christian, he was a Pantheist, he thought the whole universe was god, literally. I will share another quote by Einstein:
“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

As for the statement that there cannot be a conflict between religion and science, what about the Creationists lobbying in the USA? There are countless conflicts between religion and science, to name one sacrificing birds does not cure leprosy.

Gumbel states that the bible is 100% inspired by God and that any historical errors will be sorted out with time. This is presuppositionalism again.
Gumbel states how suffering is a problem for Christians, he almost mentions the problem of evil but his response to suffering is that God allows it so that Christians can understand it. So a child in Africa starves to death as a parasitic worm is boring through his eyeball just so you can understand suffering?

We're told the Bible is a love letter from God.
Now, anyone who knows me will know I haven't had many love letters in my short life...yet. However if someone sent me the Bible:
Dear Mad Splicer,
                             I love you so very much, I want you to be with me and worship me forever, I used to kill untold numbers of people but I sacrificed myself to myself to save you from myself. I created you the way you are but want you to be different. I gave you these critical thinking skills but don't want you to use them. If you ask me for anything I will either do it or tell you I've done it.
P.S. If you don't love me: I will tell my other lovers to kill you and I will torture you FOREVER.

Yeah, blatantly a love letter there Nicky. I don't care how beautiful, intelligent or fun to be around etc. someone is, if the threaten to burn me forever, even just burn me once, for not loving them. They just aren't my type.

His final point, which makes me laugh my arse off, is the well famed Look at the Trees argument.
It is basically an argument from ignorance which says "Look at all the beauty in the world, it must be designed."
This is an example of cherry picking, Gumbel mentions sunsets and starts, but obviously not Necrotizing fasciitis or the aforementioned parasitic worm. 
He then asks do you think God is speaking to you?
My answer should be obvious...

Part 2: The discussion.

Mary is ill unfortunately so the group is led by somebody else.

The initial subject is a comparison of the Bible and other religious works and why it sells so many. I bring up the fact that there are more Christians than other religions and that some other religions still follow the Bible.
One member says that if everyone were to follow the Bible the world would be better.
Stunned by this I mention the homophobia, slavery and sexism in the bible (see passages in last post).
Their first objection was that this was OT, I mention the passages in the NT and you can all guess their response can't you?

In his talk Gumbel mentioned that in a football game the players are more free when there is a referee to set the rules/enforce them.
He compared this to morals and life. As if saying that God is the ultimate source of morality but in a mild way.
The group leaders asks what we think of this and I use Monopoly as an analogy:
When you play monopoly there are groups that have house rules and some that throw out the rulebook and have more fun using their own rules. Even if they didn't have a referee the players still know the rules and could play just as well without one, they don't need the referee to enforce the rules. Watch the premier league the referee makes a mess of it sometimes.
In reference to morality, I usually use empathy as one source of morality. We are a social animal we can put ourselves in other peoples positions and understand we wouldn't like that so we assume they wouldn't. I don't like suffering, person X doesn't, Y doesn't etc. we can go and make a society that has lower suffering no referee needed.

The next question is what advice would you give to someone who wants to hear God?
The first, and best, answer was "Listen". Which makes sense, but it's hard to listen to what isn't there.
The next answer was "You have to expect an answer/look at what happens and try and find an answer". So you just make up an answer if you don't get an obvious one or assert that something must have been an answer.
"Just keep telling yourself it's Jesus until you believe it."

That's it for this week, this weekend is the trip away with the Alpha Course so I will have a lot to write about it.
I'm getting lots of questions about this blog so I will post an FAQ sometime, please leave any questions you have below (you can post anonymously).

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Week 4, Why and how do we pray?
This is a touchy topic so I did my best not to offend...too much.

Part 1: The Video
Gumbel starts in his usual fashion, anecdotes about prayers working for him etc. and asking "What is Christian prayer?". Since it is so obviously different to Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Baha'i prayer. Apparently Christian prayer is the single most important activity in your life and it is the very reason humans were created in the first place. So the meaning of life is that God is vain, jealous and craves worship (I'm in a rather cynical mood right now). A quip about how the billions of stars are testament to God's transcendence, in my opinion they are testament to his wastefulness, billions of stars and this is the only one he cares about.

We are graced with an anecdote about a civil war soldier who, after being refused an audience with the president, went out into the park and sat on a bench crying. The soldier then poured his heart out to the child, the child (who turned out to be Lincoln's son) took him to see Lincoln.
Come on you can see exactly what Gumbel is going to say right?

"The soldier got to the father, through the son" Gumbel triumphantly states that we can do the same as well, through prayer.

As some of you may know the Alpha Course includes a weekend away, which I will be attending and blogging about. Gumbel talks about how on the weekend away the Holy Spirit fills people, which sounds to me like there will be a bit of speaking in tongues, indeed the Alpha Course has been criticised for links to the charismatic movement. I will speak in tongues if you want, suggestions of something to say like funny phrases in Klingon or Elfish will be considered.

The bible verses Matthew 6:6 and 6:9-13 are referenced, Jesus condemns prayer in public stating people should do it in private (Rick Perry should probably have read this instead of having a pray for Texas day). We are told prayer is important in the relationship with God and that God loves us. Let's think about that, if you loved someone would you torture them forever for not loving you back, even thought you knew when you created them they would not love you. Why not just put everyone in heaven to begin with? Why not just appear to people and say I am God, worship me. Right now every Christian reading this is thinking "He did do this with the Bible". I'm sorry but do you really believe an Omniscient God cannot do better than a book with multiple contradictions with not only science and history, but also itself. A book that supports slavery, sexism and homophobia. It is absurd.
I have been told an objection to the Mafia boss analogy is that whatever you do in that situation is bad (Paying protection or burning) whereas it is not with God (Believing or burning). Well what do you have to do to believe? You have to give up pretty much all critical thinking to believe absolutely everything in the bible AND sell everything to give to the poor (which is a pretty nice idea, but don't sell everything, just that which you don't need) AND hate your family.

Another analogy would be that of a fire-fighter, like Darkmatter2525 used:
There is a man trapped in a burning house, a fire-fighter comes to rescue him however he will only do so if he believes that the fire-fighter is there (most of us would believe a fire-fighter is there trying but we have seen fire-fighters rescue people before, can you honestly say the same about God?) without any evidence. This is similar to how God will not reveal himself and save you until you believe, the classical excuse for this is that it violates free will. In the analogy the fire-fighter starts the house fire in the same way God created hell knowing in advance exactly who he would send there.

Back on topic, Gumbel shares a little anecdote about how his first ever prayer was answered: He prayed for a lift to London and his friend offered him one. Obviously his lift to London was more important than children dying of starvation and AIDS. The Templeton institute's studies of prayer have shown it to have no correlation with health does this actually surprise you?. He then tells us that God not granting our prayers is still answering them, no is still an answer. It appears that no matter what happens God will always be thanked, another DarkMatter Vid on this (I am a big fan of this guy's work). The Lord's prayer is mentioned and for some reason Father Ted comes into my mind here: "You know you can praise God with sleep Dougal..."

Prayer, like the law of attraction and other bullshit, seems to be blame the victim for failure.
If the prayer is granted: Praise God!
If the prayer is not granted: You weren't faithful enough Praise God more!

Part 2: Discussion

First question asked to the group was: Do you think God answers all prayers?
My first point is to reference Matthew 17:20. It specifically states that even if you have only a little faith, nothing will be impossible for you. This could be interpreted as meaning God will grant any prayers, which contradicts what Gumbel has said.
Another point I bring up is whether or not prayer will actually change God's mind. Since God is omniscient he knows exactly what is going to happen, no matter what and everything is part of his plan. If your prayer was part of his plan then whether or not you pray is irrelevant, if it isn't then even if you pray he won't grant it.

One member mentions in passing that God is outside of time. I personally have no idea what this means, can anything actually exist outside of time? This is often used as meaning God is outside the universe, however the universe is defined as: everything that exists, including all space, time, matter and energy. If God is not included in 'everything that exists' then you can clearly see where the problem is.

Coincidences were then mentioned, and the same member as before said that she notices these coincidences more when she prays. I give the example of confirmation bias as a possible reason why she does. Some other members of the group say that praying gives them hope/reassures them, I have no doubt of this, however hope is entirely subjective. Lots of things bring people hope, that has no bearing on whether the experience is to be believed or not.

Staying on the point of coincidences, I mention Skinner's and other experiments with pigeons. Pigeons developed what were referred to as 'superstitious behaviours' when food was dispensed at a random time.

After an anecdote about healing I bring up the saying cum hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for with this therefore because of this) it means that just because 2 things happen at the same time they are not necessarily linked. My favourite example is that of a couple on a train, a waiter brings some exotic food, one person eats the food as the train goes into a tunnel. Later in the day the other person goes to eat the food and the first on says "Don't eat that it makes you blind". I also say that this is often used in rubbish like alternative medicine.

The healing anecdote is mentioned again and this time the statement that she stopped going to the doctors was added to it, while preparing my response of "Would you advocate prayer over medicine?" we are signalled that time is up.
My apologies about how short this post is, hope you enjoy it all the same.
Thanks for reading guys, all comments welcome!