Monday, August 31, 2015

Feeling the Holy Spirit

As I mentioned in last week's my post from 2 weeks ago, I currently work at a high school and school has just started up again. The week before school starts we have to spend a lot of time in various meetings, which include meeting the new hires, a lot of random administrative stuff, pep talks, whatever new initiative the higher ups in the district want to roll out this year, and if there is any time left we can actually plan our lessons.

from wikimedia
To kick off the week, all of the teachers in the whole district got together in a local church (have I mentioned that I'm really glad I decided to use a pseudonym for this blog?). The event started with a musical number. I was expecting it to be okay at best, but to my surprise it was absolutely fantastic. The whole crowd was getting into it, there was a real energy in the room. One of my former students was even playing the drums, so that got me more excited about the whole thing, one more connection to it. It was very enjoyable, and actually quite an emotional experience.

Given that we were in a church (and that I recently started writing this blog again), my mind wandered to the idea of feeling the holy spirit inside of you. I'm sure that weekly there are many people get that feeling in the same building I was in (sometimes probably that exact seat). I'm have no doubt that they see it as evidence of God. If they were confronted with the fact that I, an atheist, felt the same thing, I wonder how they would react. I have come up with 2 guesses.

1. God lets me feel the holy spirit even though I'm an atheist in the hopes of showing me what it is like to worship him. Thereby ultimately converting me to his religion.

2. Denial that we are feeling similar things. We might use some of the same words to describe the sensations, but qualitatively there is really no comparison.

I of course would argue that this is evidence that this is not a supernatural experience, but instead just our brain chemistry at work. We are social and emotional creatures. Music really strikes an emotional nerve, and when it is good and you are surrounded by other people who enjoy it as well it just enhances the experience. And like I said, one of the performers was a former student of mine which made me proud of him that he was doing so well, and happy that he was being successful in what he's doing. Just more positive emotions to enhance the whole thing. The point being, there is no reason to bring the supernatural into it.

An old amazon review of mine, I'm currently reading book 4 in the series: Koban [5 star]

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Should We Credit God or Simply Change Our Perspective?

Parkside High School 3
Parkside High School
(I don't work here, it's just a nice picture of a high school)
I work at a high school, and school is about to start up again so we are doing our in-service days leading up to next week when the kids return. Part of the first day of this is meeting the new teachers, hearing their stories and telling them ours. One of the new teachers was telling the story about how she got her job. Basically, a series of very unlikely events led to her meeting the superintendent of our district and he encouraged her to apply for the job and she ultimately got it.

She then was telling us she had several potential career paths in front of her and she was having trouble deciding which way she should go and before that fateful meeting she had asked God to open whatever doors he wanted her to follow and close any others. As it turned out, interviewers for 2 other jobs had left messages on her phone asking her to follow up on their application process, somehow she had missed those calls and didn't see those messages until after she had accepted this job.

I've left out any identifying details so the story has lost most of its impact, but it was quite emotional and impressive the way she told it. I can totally see how a religious person would hear this story and think that it is amazing that God has worked in this woman's life to lead her to where she needs to be. There are 2 problems I can see with this point of view though, one is that it is jumping from a coincidence to God, and the other is that she would have attributed any outcome to God.

One thing that is interesting about probably is that really rare things happen all the time. I've written about this kind of thing before, but basically if you have enough people doing stuff some of those things will look extremely unlikely on their own. Hell, people win the lottery all the time. A powerball ticket has about 1 in 175,000,000 chance of winning, so if you buy a ticket you shouldn't expect to win. But if we know that 200,000,000 people are playing, you shouldn't be surprised if someone wins.

So what about this woman? How unlikely was this meeting really? It certain seems like a bit of a long shot. But what about from the perspective of the superintendent? He's a pretty outgoing guy, I bet he talks to people out in public quite often when he is out and about. He was also aware of the unfilled position and it was on his mind, it doesn't seem too unlikely that he would bring it up in a conversation. If he hadn't met her he could very well have run into someone else, or maybe in another week they would have gotten some applications just from it being posted online. From this perspective it doesn't seem too unlikely that he would run into some qualified person and encourage them to apply.

The other thing I was thinking about was that no matter what happened to her, she would have attributed it to God. The fact that he was so impressed with her shows that she's well qualified and would likely have landed another job if she hadn't met the superintendent. She even has some other very promising leads based on those voice mails she told us about. If she hadn't gotten this job she probably would have been telling a different group of people about how she initially missed the call from HR, but God led her to see her missed voicemail messages which ultimately led to her getting that job. It really boils down to one of those situations where God just can't lose no matter what happens in the end.

My Most recent amazon review: Equal Rites (Discworld Book 3)  [4 stars]

Monday, August 10, 2015

Giving Credit to God

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above...
James 1:17
My birthday is coming up and I recently got a birthday card from one of my extremely religious relatives. I noticed the verse James 1:17 was in the bottom corner, which said "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above...".

This verse highlights one of those ideas that atheists complain about all the time. The problem is that it takes the good that people do for each other and gives the credit to God. Often you see this with medical interventions, people will get a surgery and then say "thank God the surgery went well". It steals the credit from the people who performed the surgery as well as the entire medical system supporting them. (I'll be using the example of a surgery for the remainder of the post for simplicity, but this applies equally well to many other situations)

But is that how Christians would think about this? I can say that it isn't the case for my religious friends and family. They don't see it as taking credit away from someone else, but rather crediting God as well. They would genuinely thank God for a successful surgery, but they would also of course thank the surgeons and nurses and the myriad of other people who helped them along the way. So what is the harm in that?

In my opinion, the difficulty is that the harm is somewhat subtle. When they thank God, what are they saying exactly? I have heard many times that God is working through the person, but again, what does this mean? I can think of two ways to interpret it, both of which I think are believed by some Christians.

  1. God is literally working through the surgeon, directing their actions in a very hands-on way.
  2. God's presence has influenced the surgeon over their lifetime, perhaps helping them along in subtle ways, helping them get their degree and obtain the training necessary to help you (as well as all of their other patients), even giving them their very morality that caused them to want to help others in the first place.

No one is saying "fuck the doctor, God did it", but if we look at these 2 possibilities, it is hard to not see some of the credit being taken away from the doctor to give it to God. Certainly in the first case, but even in the second, it minimizes the years of work and hardship that the doctor has gone through to get to the place they are today.

Especially as a non-religious person, it is very annoying to see this happen. Our gut reaction can be "hell no, God didn't help me, I worked my ass off to get to where I am with no help from Him!" Sometimes I see atheists respond in this way and Christians are completely taken aback by this response. I think the reason is that for the most part they don't really think about the implications of what they are saying from our perspective. They see the world as God having his hands in everything and helping us out at every turn. They wouldn't take exception to God being credited as helping their work (they would actually probably see it as an honor) so it is hard for them to understand why we wouldn't see it in the same way.

Originally, my next thought was going to be that we should not come out so strongly and alienate Christians, but should instead try to explain our side of things. The problem with this is exactly what I said in the above paragraph, many Christians don't even really think about the implications of what they are saying. Merely pushing back a little bit is often seen as an attack. Couple this with the fact that if they are in a position to be thanking God for something, they are probably going through some difficulty and don't really need our lecture (if we flip the situation we certainly wouldn't want them preaching at us).

So what do we do instead? I have a few ideas, first, make sure that in addition to thanking God, they explicitly thank the doctors as well. With my family, I think for the most part they would do this on their own, but they would also think that by thanking God the doctor's thank you is implied and it might get overlooked. Secondly, when these types of things come up in the media, when somebody on the news is in this situation and thanks God, that is the time for us to have the conversation. When no one in the conversation is actually personally involved, then at least with some distance hopefully some of the emotion will be left out of it and they will be able to see our point of view.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Noah's Ark Revisited

Edward Hicks
Wikimedia Commons
I have a toddler, which means that for the last year and a half two years (wow, this has been in my drafts for that long?) I have seen a lot of kids toys and books. One thing that has really stuck me is that Noah's ark shows up a lot. I always find this striking as, by my reading, the Noah's ark story is really horrible. God decides to murder almost every person and animal on the planet, and the person he decides to save almost instantly shows himself to not be that great of a person. It's amazing to me that anyone would want to expose their children to such a story.

But then I started asking myself what I was missing. I look at this story and see a violent, maniacal God attacking his own creation, but clearly a great number of parents see something else. They see something that they value and want to share with their children. I want to find out what they see.

This kind of thing has been scratching at the back of my brain for a while. As I have read through Genesis I see very little of value. Much of it is nonsensical, God is often very violent, and his chosen people seem to be very shady indeed. And yet, this has been people's holy book for thousands of years. What am I missing? What would it take to see this story in a positive light? In an attempt to explore this angle, I have looked around at a few sermons online to see what positive messages they get out of the story, I will start by listing a few of these from their perspective. (I will respond to each point below).

1. Cleansing Evil

As one sermon put it "Mankind had become unbelievably evil... so much so that God was grieved and filled with pain and decided to send a flood to destroy all of mankind".

I can understand this view of things, it is pretty easy to look around the world today and see many evils. There seem to be evil people everywhere and I can certainly imagine a world where things are even worse than they are today. A few references to Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer can easily get us imagining a world full of people we might want to wipe out. Plus, God is doing this to get the world to a place where good can thrive. God is pained to have to go to such extreme measures, but ultimately he is getting rid of the bad to make way for the good.

(This first point is really the big one for this story. The remaining points below are interesting and worth talking about, but honestly, #1 is it. You have to fully accept this point or the story becomes pretty awful.)

2. Noah was Saved

As this sermon puts it, Noah was saved by the grace of God.

3. Noah was Obedient

God asked Noah to build the ark and Noah obeyed. By obeying God good things happen to him. If we also obey God good things should happen to us as well

4. Noah was Faithful

Noah had faith in God, that he would follow through with his word and cleans the world of evil by drowning. He also had faith that God would spare him and his family if he followed his commands

5. Noah was Fearful

Noah obeyed God out of fear. He was afraid of what would happen to him if he did not obey.

My Responses

1. Are the people who drowned in the flood irredeemably evil? To me, this is the crux of the story. If someone is rotten to the core and there is just nothing that can be done to make them a good person, then killing them seems like a reasonable thing to do. If we know that someone has committed a serious crime (say murder), and we also know that no matter what we do they will do it again given the opportunity, then the death penalty seems like a reasonable option.

However, what if they can be redeemed and made to see that what they have been doing is wrong? What if they can be changed in some meaningful way so that they will never commit such evil acts again? In this case, the evil has been cleansed without killing that person, and from the perspective of a loving God this seems like a much better solution. For the "cleansing evil" narrative to hold water, we must believe that every evil person who is going to be drowned in the flood is irredeemably evil. Are there some people in this category? Perhaps. Is everybody on the planet (including children) in this category? That's hard to believe.

When I look out in the world today, I see that most people are good. There are also many people who do bad things, but are really just in a bad situation. I think that for most of those people, if they could get dug out of whatever hole they are in and get a decent support system they would be much less likely to continue doing those bad things (I even saw a "documentary" about this). So in theory, if we really set our minds to it we could help most "bad" people to improve. Of course, there are some people who are rotten to the core, sociopaths and such that we really don't know how to get through to. For this story to make sense, everyone in the world (except Noah and his family) must be in this category. Furthermore, it has to be beyond God's power (not just ours) to improve them.

I just find this outside the realm of possibility and this seems to be the disconnect between most atheists and Christians on this topic. If the planet is full of people who are rotten to the core, who are so far gone that even God himself can't fix them, then it makes sense for him to kill everyone to make way for good people. But if people are not quite that bad, then the flood story is a tale of mass murder on an unimaginable scale. When I was a Christian I took for granted the idea that the world was full of evil, but that was mostly because I hadn't really thought about it. When I started questioning things this was definitely something that bothered me.

2. My first thought when I hear "Noah was saved" is that God is simply saving him from a death caused by God himself. If I almost killed you then stopped at the last second, you wouldn't exactly be giving me high-fives. The fact that God saved Noah from his own wrath does not earn him any brownie points from me.

But then I thought that perhaps the point was that God was saving Noah (and his lineage) from an evil world. If this is what is meant, I suppose I can grant that point. God is making the world a better place for Noah.

3. Obedience is one of those things that comes up in the bible a lot as a virtue. There is certainly a time and a place for it, obedience is really important in some circumstances. But there are also times when it is a bad thing. If someone commands you to do something awful (like murder your children) you shouldn't do it. Although I suppose in this story obedience is fine. If someone tells me they are going to murder everyone around me and they give me a way to avoid their wrath, I would probably do it too.

4. Noah has faith that God would follow through with his plan to murder nearly everyone on the planet and that if he built the ark he would be saved. I suppose that is a demonstration of faith, if Noah hadn't believed God he just wouldn't have done anything and died along with everyone else. Faith worked out for Noah in this story, but in general is it really a virtue?

5. This is one of those things that really confuses me. The whole idea of it being a good thing to be "God fearing". I should probably devote a whole post to this later on, but the idea of being God fearing seem antithetical to a loving God. Why is it a virtue to be fearful of a loving God? It really doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.
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