Dialogs with Christians


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 22 August 2010 Updated: 02 July 2011: added new dialog with one of the believers

This page serves to collect and present dialogs regarding my essays about religion. If you wish to communicate your opinion regarding this topic, you can contact me at cdoswell at earthlink.net - either use the email hyperlink or cut and paste after replacing _at_ with @. However, if you're not willing to have your comments posted here, along with my response, don't waste my time or yours.

The following is based, somewhat loosely, on a real dialog I had recently with someone disputing the idea that science and religion are incompatible modes of thought and that scientists who embrace religion are being inconsistent.

Apologist: I don't see the two as incompatible (a lot of good scientists are religious). It's all religion, anyway. The pure scientist's religion says that there was absolutely nothing, then suddenly - by some mysterious, and as yet unknown process - there was matter. Then through a series of highly improbable improbabilites ... let there be simple proteins, complex proteins, regenerative proteins, then finally a billlion species so complex that you need an electron microscope to see all the moving parts. The creationists assume that there was always a divine being who decided to create all this stuff. It all comes down to belief.

Me: There are several points here that I would dispute. The "god did it" explanation for the existence of the universe and human life is no explanation at all. It isn't science in any way and is not in any way a competing rational hypothesis. Science and religion inevitably clash in all instances where religious mythology offers a supernatural 'explanation' of some natural process. Science is based on logic and evidence, religion is based on faith. That makes it pretty evident where the distinction between them is. If you can embrace both ... well, it seems inconsistent to me. I won't deny anyone the right to believe whatever they wish, even if it's nonsense, but don't expect me to do so. The difference between beliefs in science, and those in religion, is that scientific beliefs are always based on evidence, and scientific beliefs can be applied to solve real world problems. Scientific beliefs are not founded on hearsay evidence in pre-Enlightenment writings. Monotheistic religious beliefs are steadfast in denying any role for evidence, and there is no evidence that can be used to confirm the existence of a deity matching that described in their sacred documents. Religious beliefs can't be used to solve real-world problems in the natural world - there's no faith-based transistor, no faith-based numerical weather prediction model, no faith-based genetic engineering.

Your statements concerning scientific 'beliefs' regarding the origin of the universe and the origin of species are worded to create the appearance of a close analogy with religious beliefs. But these descriptions are not dogmatic articles of faith. They have evidence to support them. The notion of a 'big bang' is essentially back extrapolation from the data that confirm the hypothesis of an expanding universe. Anything that might precede the big bang is solidly in the realm of speculation. Biological evidence in support of evolution as the origin of species is massive. Science as yet doesn't understand how life first came to be, so for the time being, the very existence of life suggests that the probabilities (as yet unknown) for what you describe as improbable, can't be all that small.

Your deliberately worded comments refer to scientific hypotheses wherein scientists have admitted that they don't know everything and should compelling evidence be found that alters how scientists understand these origins, those hypotheses would be altered to fit the new evidence. That's how science works.

Apologist: There are too many leaps of faith on your side of the aisle for me to call it anything but religion. But that's okay. On the other hand, If some people want to see a guiding hand in all of that, it's fine with me. If you want to ...claim that "poof -- something appeared from nothing" by some yet undefined scientific process, I'm happy with that too. I'm not conceited enough in my own intellect to be quite so sure when there are so many mysteries left about the appearance of matter, and the development of the complexities of life.

Me: Leaps of faith? I've just explained that faith is not involved in solid science at all. What you insist on seeing as leaps of faith are topics that scientists would see as speculation, not established concepts. Perhaps some day those issues may be understood more comprehensively than they now are as a result of scientific investigation. Monotheistic religion will never advance beyond 'god did it'. Science is never so conceited about its accomplishments that it denies the existence of unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries. Individuals might be that conceited, but the profession as a whole is quite far from being so arrogant as religious reconstructionists like to describe it. Knowing more about the natural world through science humbles most of us, who have worked long and hard to find out how much we don't understand. It is the religious faithful who are arrogant in claiming that their beliefs constitute unshakeable, absolute truth. I tend to resent such beliefs as they represent a path that honors ignorance and unquestioning obedience. I maintain that if someone wants to insert a guiding hand behind natural world processes, they're free to do so, but it can't have anything to do with science, as such a faith-based hypothesis is just inconsistent with science.

Apologist: Nope, there's no inconsistency, unless the religious belief denies the processes of life. I've known plenty of scientists who credit God with the creation of matter (and therefore the universe) and study the process of life as learning about "God's process." Those are the scientists I was talking about. Otherwise, I agree totally with your first point. We don't know, and may never know, so it might be better for us as scientists to discuss more practical matters.

Me: Religious faith is, by definition, completely independent of any need for evidence. There can be no rational basis for irrational belief. Science has no sacred beliefs you're obligated to accept on faith, other than that of logic and using evidence to test its hypotheses. Logical syllogisms can, of course, be tested against the evidence, and science has a long track record of success in applying logic to understanding how the natural world works. All scientific explanations are provisional, not sacred, but if they work, they can be applied to solve real-world problems. You're free to call that religion if you wish, of course, but I think your equating religion and science is at odds with virtually any dictionary. One huge difference between science and religion is that scientists do not claim to have all the answers. In monotheistic religions, they have the ultimate deus ex machina - an 'explanation' for everything (that actually explains nothing). That some scientists countenance both modes of thought is evidence of nothing, except perhaps that human beings are capable of embracing contradictions.

Apologist: Religious faith for many simply means putting your faith in the idea that God is behind everything. There are sacred beliefs, but none that should interfere with scientific investigation. I'm not talking about fanatics who refuse to recog...nize processes such as survival of the fittest, etc, or those who claim to have ALL the answers, but a lot of religious people I know are not like that. Thus, their interest in science is the same as yours. Both you and they want to understand process. You want to understand process as an end in itself, while they want to understand process as understanding God's processes. And I don't care about dictionaries. In the end, you simply believe that somehow the universe appeared "scientifically," while they believe God did it. You believe in convenient mutations and improbably probabilities, and they think it's guided. There are scientists who belive in God, and (I believe) are not embracing contradiction. Your "belief" about religion is preventing you from taking this point.

Me: Some scientists may have a personal need for a supernatural 'first cause' but science as a profession specifically eschews positing and attempting to investigate any such unnecessary and unverifiable hypotheses. Science has limitations to its understanding, and acknowledges that.

Ah, the convenient dichotomy between 'fanatics' and the moderates. Moderates are cherry-picking what to believe and what not to believe in their religion's 'holy writ' - this is precisely what I mean about encompassing contradictions. Given the logical possibility that all of the content in their scriptures is simply myth, I have more respect for the consistency of fundamentalists than I have for those who pick and choose what parts of their professed 'faith' to believe. Note that dogma espoused by the self-appointed interpreters of monotheistic religion about precisely what to believe has changed dramatically over time, in part as a direct result of the successes of science at explaining processes that in holy documents were 'explained' by myths. No self-respecting scientist today believes the Earth is the center of the Solar System and is only 6K years old. No scientist now believes that eating meat on Fridays is a mortal sin. Etc., etc., etc.

Your use of the notion of 'convenient' mutations is a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Mutations are mostly inconvenient for those individuals born with them. The stuff of evolution is the range of possibilities inherent in the gene pool and the variations in their environment that species find themselves within at any specific time. It so happens that insects and microorganisms evolve rapidly in response to environmental change because their lifetimes are short and the number of individuals is vast. I see so-called microevolution as pretty compelling evidence of evolutionary theory; microevolution is a successful application of evolutionary theory as a whole. Microevolution is, of course, 'conveniently' rejected by creationists as evidence.

And the probabilities of which you speak actually are unknown to science, so their improbability is simply your guess of those probabilities, based on virtually nothing. Science doesn't claim to know those probabilities because as yet we don't understand the processes well enough. Creationism would bar the door to investigation because it already knows the 'answer' to all the questions: god did it! Imagine having access to a mechanical watch ... knowing that it was made by a particular watchmaker [say, named Jahweh] offers virtually no insight to how the watch is made or how it works to mark time. "Jahweh did it!" is no explanation at all.

My 'beliefs' regarding religion are dominated by my lifelong commitment to the concept that we can use evidence to sort out reality from myth. If you embrace mythology and science at the same time, you're being inconsistent. I don't deny anyone the right to believe as they wish, but when their beliefs are contradictory, I feel the need to point that out.

Apologist: BOTH science and religion have modified their beliefs over time. In fact, BOTH have changed dramatically over time due to new understandings and new thinking. I see nothing wrong with that. Not many Christians (or even Jews for that matter) believe the earth is 6700 years old, though there are more than a few that do. In terms of sorting reality from myth, much of science has been debunked as myth, just as many religious beliefs have been. No one bleeds patients anymore ... or at least hopefully not.

I know what mutations are. I was using mutations (sort of sarcastically) to point out a "belief" that didn't retain much traction in science, even though it was believed by many for a while. And my point is the same -- no one knows what the probabilities are of developing simple proteins, going to complex proteins, going to regenerative proteins and so on. Anyone who is sure that's what happened is expressing a belief. I believe it, and you believe it, but just cause we're freakin' geniuses doesn't mean it's true. Aslo, your lumping of Creationists views into the "fanatical belief in instant world 6700 years ago" camp shows an abyssmal lack of exposure to the vast spectrum of beliefs in that regard. I have many religious friends who are scientists, and most believe in an intelligent design of the processes of nature. A lot of the scientific community is like a lot of the religious community -- little effort is applied to understanding the others belief systems.

Me: But science embraces the notion of changing its explanations, while religion resists change to its 'explanations' because it implicitly undermines their sacred truths. A big difference between how religion and science relate to scientific progress is that science has never claimed to be in possession of absolute truth. If you think that the scientific process involves 'debunking' pre-existing scientific hypotheses, then you don't seem to understand how science works. Only foolish scientists are ever 'sure' they know absolute truth! Scientific explanations persist only so long as they work ... that is, their statements are consistent with evidence. New explanations supplant old ones because they work better than the old ones at explaining evidence in some way, perhaps in light of new forms of evidence. Nevertheless, the preceding hypotheses had to be consistent with the old evidence to some extent. The success of a new hypothesis doesn't usually go so far as to 'debunk' the old idea ... it simply works better and replaces the old one.

I suppose not every creationist is exactly like every other one, but so what? It's just not true that I don't understand the christian belief system - I was brought up in it and know a lot more about christian beliefs than many christians know about science. I would challenge the existence of any basis for a statement that "most scientists believe in an intelligent design of the processes of nature"! Where's the evidence supporting that? I offer this site as evidence to the contrary - only 33% of scientists believe in a monotheistic God, whereas the majority either have a spiritual belief outside of the standard monotheistic faiths, or have no belief in any deity whatsoever. On the other hand, 83% of Americans, in general, claimed belief in a monotheistic deity.

A scientist supporting "intelligent design" (creationism dressed in a new suit) is inherently contradictory because creationism is not about science - understanding process, as you put it. If you rationalize being religious and being a scientist by arguing that biology is about implementing god's plan, that's your choice, but god's plan is both unknown and apparently unknowable, which puts it squarely outside of science - it cannot be subjected to scientific investigation and can't be involved in any way with the professional duties of a biologist. If a biologist were making claims that s/he has evidence on behalf of creationism, then needless to say, that evidence would have to be extraordinarily compelling!! I don't know of any creationist evidence that comes even close to that. Do you?

Of course, a scientist might not believe in creationism but still believe in an anthropomorphic deity of the sort described by the major monotheistic religions. I acknowledge that and have all along. But I maintain it's inconsistent with science. Apparently, such a scientist believer is compartmentalizing science and religion, and 'conveniently' ignoring the very evident myths, barbarity, and contradictions contained within the holy documents that his/her professed 'faith' claims as its spiritual basis. I can't conceive of how a scientist could embrace any of the major monotheistic religions without having to come to terms with the implications of their chosen religion, as documented in the scripture of that denomination.

I don't deny anyone the right to believe (or not believe) in whatever they choose, but some beliefs run distinctly contrary to the way science works. To accept them both is to embrace a contradiction. Apparently, the best we're going to achieve with this debate is to agree to disagree about this, since we seem to be arguing past each other. Either that or you're playing devil's advocate just to yank my chain ...

Dialog added: 08 April 2011


The following is a lightly edited discussion with a friend of mine (David H.) who happens to be a believer, pretty much as it happened in an email exchange, with some minor changes to fit this format and clarify points. I'm not revealing his identity, but I have a lot of respect for him as a person, even though I don't agree with his analysis. My responses are in a different font and color.

Minor issues

I cannot pass by one of your observations without offering an alternative view. Under "2. Logical Flaws," you raised one of the classical arguments against: Can an omnipotent being with infinite powers "create an object s/he can't move?" I don't believe that to be a fatal argument. If one reasonably assumes that a Supreme Being is all powerful ("omnipotent") and everywhere ("omnipresent"), then He already contains the entire universe (space, time, dimensions) within Himself and cannot logically create something beyond his power to move . He cannot be more powerful than He is! Put another way, the Supreme Being can't create an object He can't move, not because of his inability (not powerful enough) but because He already contains it (all powerful). The question's wording leads to an illogical conclusion.

Sorry, but this argument fails to hold water. The problem is not with the wording. The problem is with the concept of omni-anything. Infinities typically lead to conundrums like this, and I believe it's the presumption of infinite power (especially when applied to the being with that power) that's the source for the contradiction. It's not an argument against the existence of a supreme being, but rather with the belief in the infinite attributes of that presumed deity.

To believe otherwise is no more valid than to pursue the equally futile conundrum: "Who created the Creator?"

I disagree. These are two very different conundrums. They pose very different logical challenges.

If all human experience and knowledge derives from His creation (apparently the universe we now occupy), then we can only learn or conclude from that which is within it. We cannot confidently come to any conclusions based on something outside of it and beyond the ability of the Creator. However, this does not address the claim that there never was a Supreme Being to begin with (atheism). The latter question is what prompted my research to find a provable God.

Atheism is not necessarily associated with a belief in the non-existence of a deity. Rather, it's the absence of belief in a deity. This may seem like hair-splitting, but not all atheists deny any logical possibility of the existence of a deity (I fall into this category), whereas all atheists are united by the disbelief in a deity.

Science and Religion

Several issues were raised in your discussion of "Intelligent design: Religion or science?", about which I have a come to a different conclusion. Under the heading, "How intelligent is this design, anyway?" you state that "a lot of things about the design of creatures... seem...quite a bit less than ideal." The appendix "serves no useful purpose...from an earlier time, when it perhaps did..." I have difficulty imagining any complex organism in this world, animal or vegetable, that did not evolve in some logical and necessary way from something else, as you allow in an afterthought above. Can you provide additional examples, that did not evolve from a time when they were necessary but were always unnecessary? You continue (seriously?) "... wouldn't it make more sense to walk on three or four legs (more stable) and still have our two hands...free?" I don't believe our simian ancestors could have fled any faster from predators than with two feet and hands on four limbs. It would seem that three or four legs would require more bone and muscle tissue, more coordination, and would have required a bulkier and slower animal. Evolutionary predation would have wiped out that species long ago. The kangaroo sits securely on its tail (three point contact) but can't play poker worth a darn. I understand the general point you were making but question the examples offered to support it.

Nonsense. If you consider most of the fleet-footed creatures on this planet, by far the majority have 4 (or more) legs, be they predators or prey. Having hands free and 4 running legs would have made more sense for both avoiding predators and many of things we do. Bipedal locomotion has a number of disadvantages and only a few advantages.

Then you conclude with a comprehensive indictment: "The fact is that the structure of the world and the universe contains not only examples of exquisite functionality but also of profoundly dysfunctional elements." Whoa! I would like to know what some examples of the dysfunctional are, regarding (1) substantial life forms or (2) macroscopic objects up to the level of cosmology (other than "Heisenberg’s uncertainty," chaos theory, or similar observations).

There are many interesting aspects of this universe that represent limitations on our knowledge, including Heisenberg Uncertainty, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, chaotic/nonlinear dynamics, the strange world of quantum physics, etc. I would not make, nor does my essay claim to have made any assertion on the bases of these scientific/mathematical principles that they represent a "dysfunctionality" of the Universe. Don’t put words in my mouth, here, please.

Do you find the same number of dysfunctional examples as functional?

I didn’t realize that I was under some logical requirement to do so. To my knowledge, I have no such obligation.

If everything "...was born in a quantum event, how has an essentially non-quantum world emerged? When the universe originated and was very small, quantum uncertainty engulfed it. Today, we do not notice any residual uncertainty in macroscopic bodies." (Pg. 159, Paul Davies, The Mind of God, 1992).

Balderdash. There is a vast amount of uncertainty associated with macroscopic processes. Whenever the governing relationships are nonlinear, uncertainty is virtually inevitable. Uncertainty, per se, is not relevant to a discussion about the existence or non-existence of a deity.

The result of my study seems to attach greater significance to the many examples of "exquisite functionality" in the world and universe and with other writers who believe that such events individually are remarkable and, collectively, suggest something more.

This is pretty weak evidence for what amounts to an extraordinary claim: i.e., the existence of a supernatural supreme being. One could argue that natural processes would weed out the most dysfunctional of things long before the present era. If some particular trait is not the optimum (by some standard of optimality), but not life-threatening, it can be retained, and may evolve to become splendidly functional.

Finally, you claim many examples "where reality is certainly inconvenient." Oh? Again, please give examples. "Couldn’t an omnipotent Creator have created a more sensible world by giving us mathematics that was a lot simpler, without all the messy stuff that's so hard to understand?" If serious, you seem to be asking that reality be "dumbed down" to what mere humans understand. Surely, our current level of comprehension does not define how low the bar of future understanding must be.

I'm definitely serious. Reality includes a vast array of natural hazards, for example, which I think anyone would agree are most definitely 'inconvenient'! Your hypothetical being created a really complex world, but apparently made US too stupid to comprehend his purposes within it – i.e., the "God works in mysterious ways." argument. Why not would a beneficit (infinitely so, in fact) creator make things less complex, or less hazardous for us, or make us capable of grasping the purposes for this deity inconveniencing our existence with tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes, asteroid and comet impacts, etc.? The simple, logical answer is that our world wasn't created for us and our convenience!

Do we expect the amoebae and fleas to worship us? What possible need might we have to receive the adoration of paramecia and flies? Why would your supposedly omniscient and omnipotent creator feel it was so important that we humans (who happen to be incapable of understanding said deity by his own design choices!) kneel at his feet in penintence? "Thank you, oh infinitely magnificent one, for creating us to be mystified by your magnificent plan, so unknown and unknowable to us (thanks to you)!"

Intelligent Design, Argument for …

A universe that has developed order from uncertainty (the "Big Bang" or Guth's "Inflation") and sufficient "functionality" to allow guiding space ships to distant planets and comets requires an ordered universe with predictable laws of matter, motion and time. Such order is either a collection of fortuitous accidents or suggests something more.

Order doesn’t emerge from uncertainty. Order emerges from the laws of the natural world. Some of those laws do involve uncertainty.

Certain facts were necessary for this universe to produce life. There were no prerequisite conditions in the laws of physics that said atoms or molecules had to be constructed a certain way or that gravity had to be of a certain strength.

But if the laws of physics were different from what they are, life might not have resulted at all.

"A long list of...'lucky accidents' and 'coincidences'...provide impressive evidence that life…depends very sensitively on the...laws of physics..." (Pgs. 199-200, Paul Davies, The Mind of God, 1992)

This is not impressive evidence at all. The fact that we don’t know everything about how life emerged does not imply it could not have arisen precisely as a series of accidents and coincidences, as a consequence of the laws of physics. Theists like to use the example of a watch to imply the existence of a watchmaker. I agree that the existence of a watch implies the watchmaker, as well as a host of other "experts": metallurgists, machinists, toolmakers, smelters, miners, etc. But evidence for the existence of a deity requires a lot more than implications. If your hypothetical deity simply parted a few seas, or turned a few people into pillars of salt now and then, in a very public fashion, we wouldn’t be having this debate, because the evidence for your deity would be overwhelmingly convincing.

A different universe

  1. If quantum events were rewritten to produce an equal number of quarks and anti quarks, the universe would be "filled with radiation but hardly any matter." (Pg. 76, Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 1988)
  2. When the universe began, "If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size." (Pgs. 121-122, Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 1988) Early star death
  3. "The weak nuclear force is related to the strength of gravity in such a way that mainly hydrogen rather than helium emerged as the dominant element in the earliest stage of the universe. If that relation had been slightly different in one direction, then mostly helium would have formed and there would have been more rapid burning and shorter lived stars. More important, there would have been almost no hydrogen to form water..." *
  4. "[A] strong force binds protons and neutrons together in the atomic nucleus. ... An only 2 percent increase in the strength of the nuclear force would have burned up all the hydrogen catastrophically early in the universe." *
  5. "Gravity is incredibly weaker than the electromagnetic force that makes the dense nucleus of an atom hug a cloud of fleeting electrons. If gravity had been slightly stronger...stars would have burned much faster and hotter, and the sun would long since have used up its hydrogen. Life would probably never have had a chance to evolve."


* (Pgs. B1-2, Eugene F. Mallove, "The Universe as Happy Conspiracy", The Washington Post, B3, 10/27/85)


The most serious challenge to the design examples above is the suggestion by physicists that many universes were created before a life-friendly one emerged. There is no reason in quantum mechanics why more than one singularity could not have produced additional universes at the same time as this one --or even continue doing so today. Paul Davies understands this argument but leans toward design, based on the hoary concept of Occam's razor: "...if a given set of facts about the world can be explained by more than one theory, ...pick the theory with the least number of independent variables." (Pg. 135, Paul Davies, The Mind of God, 1992) He has found that to be true over many decades and in many disciplines, indicating that this choice tends to work best most of the time. Of course, that statement may only be valid in this universe.

The "God did it!" answer to questions regarding the origin of the universe or life offers no explanation at all. To return to the watch example, if I want to understand the watch, the answer that "Timex made it!" offers me nothing in the way of insight into the manufacture of that watch or how it operates to mark the passage of time. Logic beyond Occam's Razor would require one to begin by rejecting all such supernatural 'explanations' since they have no explanatory power, and we have no compelling evidence to believe in a supernatural origin. No one knows at this time exactly how life arose, or what the origins of the universe might be. We can speculate, and scientists have the right to do so, but for such speculation to become respectable in science, the hypothesis has to be tested against the evidence. Most speculations about the origins of life or the universe are not testable at present, so they must remain outside of science. You can believe whatever you choose to believe, but science can never embrace supernatural 'explanations.'

To take a step further, if our concept of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent Supreme Being is valid, and the universe cannot have created Him, then He preceded the universe. If we live in a multiple universe reality, He also logically preceded all other singularities.

I simply do not agree with this. I see no purely logical requirement that a deity must have preceded the universe as we know it. Your putative deity may be a consequence of the universe (which might have been created by some other process), not its cause.

However, if He created the universe(s), did He need to do so? If so, then we must address this challenge to his existence. This leads to two illogical conclusions. Either He created the universe (1) for no reason or (2) He needed to do so, which means He can't be the Supreme Being because of the weakness of need . The first reason is illogical, since there can be no purposeless act by a sentient being. An act doesn't accomplish itself without a decision or "reason." The second argument is equally illogical, because it assumes that beings He created can set themselves apart to judge the reason for creation. If He cannot create a being more powerful than Himself, then He did not give humans more wisdom than He has to judge over Him. Ergo, both arguments fail.

This is a specious argument. If I accept the proposition that your deity exists and created the universe, then I can invoke the argument that your deity has, for reasons of his own, chosen to be mysterious and I have no basis to believe that my simple human logical has to apply to him, nor is it necessary that he did stuff (like create the universe) for any reason I can understand. I've never asserted that we humans would necessarily know more than our putative deity, nor can we expect to judge such a deity (if we accept the proposition of his existence). However, when I hold the traditional, biblical deity to the simple standards of decent human behavior, he has revealed himself to be vengeful, cruel, willing to commit extreme violence to the point of killing everyone but his chosen few, arrogant, psychotically paranoid and jealous, a misogynist, a homophobe, and willing to submit multiple generations to accept responsibility for the 'sins' of their ancestors. Your biblical deity gives us commandments (most of which pertain to forcing us to worship him on pain of death), and then tells us that he can do whatever he wants while we must obey him absolutely. He can change the rules whenever he wants to and we have nothing to say about it.

So are atheists right? Was there no Supreme Being to begin with, and our universe is just one of many that happened to get it right? Based on the preceding, I believe they are wrong.

Your beliefs, of course, are your own, and you’re welcome to have them. But they offer me no compelling reason to agree with them.

Decades of writers about the reality or fallacy of religion may have made the issue much more complicated than necessary. We can become so immersed in philosophical wrangling and scientific probing, digging ever deeper into minutia, that we risk overlooking the obvious! Is it more logical to imagine remote events and abstruse theories rather than accept a universe already sensible to our examination --and uniquely disposed to life? If we cannot confidently conclude anything beyond our experience of this universe (Occam's razor), then this is all there is --as far as we will ever know.

It's trivial for a scientist to accept the logical possibility of things beyond our experience. All scientists understand that our knowledge of the universe is quite limited. It's the believers in an all-everything deity who seem to think they have an infallible, comprehensive understanding of the universe!

We can only confirm that this universe is conducive to life, and that the laws of matter that make it possible exist in an unexpectedly narrow range of tolerance. We are either very lucky or very favored.

Our deepest feelings of wonder at the world and universe around us seem to come when we are most at peace --which may permit an intuitive link to that which is true. Can we who are the products of a largely predictable, ordered, and life sustaining universe confidently conclude that it is more likely that there is no over-riding plan or purpose? Is every wonderful experience in life, every affection and fellowship, and the beauty in classical music, a mountain vista, a golden sunset, or an awesome star filled sky --all-- simply the result of a random cosmic accident and has no further meaning? Am I no different from a rock? I can't get my mind around such a concept. Something un-provable but intuitive takes me in another direction.

It's precisely the very human need to have a purpose that drives us to invent deities. The ants don’t ask questions about their purpose, and they get along nicely without doing so. Humans have created deities since before the beginning of recorded history. A critical question is which deity is the real one? You're also an atheist when it comes to the purported existence and divinity of Zeus, Ra, Aten, Baal, Shiva, Jupiter, etc. The only difference between you and me is that I believe in one less deity than you. It's but a simple, logical step to drop the last remaining deity from one's list of beliefs.


On May 31, 2011, at 3:00 AM, John C. wrote (in regard to what I have posted here), with his comments in italics (further dialog added on 02 July 2011 in purple):

One of our differences now is what is meant by "faith". Your paper does not define your understanding but seems something like "belief in the absence of evidence". My understanding is that faith is trust, or belief, based on evidence. it is rational, not irrational. We show faith or trust in people or objects every day of our lives. I'm sitting in a chair on a cold, wet Sydney afternoon typing this message to you, trusting that the chair will keep supporting me. I have faith in the chair based on the evidence that it has supported me for the last 20 years or so. Having faith in God means trusting him on the basis of the evidence that He has provided. The apostle John at the end of his gospel writes (John 21: 30-31) "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." My trust in God is based predominantly on what he says in the Bible.

Your personal definition of faith is an interesting one, as it directly contradicts the standard cant of religion -- when I ask about the evidence for the existence of god, the response is "We take it on faith!" That is, belief in the absence of evidence. The biblical evidence for the miracles of jesus (and those supernatural events described in the old testament as well) is based only on the testimony of those who wrote the bible. Where faith is involved is in accepting such "evidence" which might (or might not) stand up in a court of law but would not be considered even remotely useful for science -- even if you accept the words as representing some sort of observed "truth" rather than mythology or a fable, they're "anecdotal" evidence, which in science is not acceptable as evidence.

Your faith in your chair is VERY distant logically from having faith in a supernatural being that hasn't revealed its presence in nearly 2000 years, and our only "evidence" is this being is that of a document written about a century after the putative god in human form was killed.

"Anecdotal" means second hand. Much of the Bible is definitely not second hand, being written by eyewitnesses of the events (or dictated by them to scribes). Gospel writers Matthew and John were followers of Jesus. As was Peter, who did not write a gospel, but several letters. Luke, the writer of the Gospel, accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys. These are recorded in Acts by Luke. Paul's letters are his. The letters of Paul were well known in other churches and Peter describes them as 'scripture" (2 Peter 3:14-17). Moses was the recipient of God's law which comprises much of the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses. The writing prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel etc, have their books named after them.

Actually, dictionary.com defines "anecdotal" in the following way:

–adjective 1. pertaining to, resembling, or containing anecdotes: an anecdotal history of jazz. 2. (of the treatment of subject matter in representational art) pertaining to the relationship of figures or to the arrangement of elements in a scene so as to emphasize the story content of a subject. Compare narrative ( def. 6 ) . 3. based on personal observation, case study reports, or random investigations rather than systematic scientific evaluation: anecdotal evidence.

First, I believe definition #3 is the relevant one. "Second hand" is not mentioned at all. Second, the Gospels were not written by living eyewitnesses. They were written starting about 60 years after the supposed time of christ by people who were not actually disciples.

You might like to read a popular book, "A Case for Christ", written by Lee Strobel. He is a former sceptic with journalist and legal degrees who investigated the evidence about Jesus. His biography is here: www.leestrobel.com/Bio.php

I'll look it over when I get a chance.

Your definition of faith sounds quite similar to this: http://www.learnthebible.org/what-is-faith.html

Lee Strobel also has a similar definition. But some other christians also think more along your lines. When we were in XX we attended the First Baptist Church. The pastor gave a children's talk during a service where he tried to explain "faith" in line with your definition. The children couldn't understand what he was on about. Such a "faith" would be better described as stupidity.

I guess that means that someone who accepted the existence of a deity without evidence is stupid, right?

You say at the end of para. 1 on p13 of your paper "there's no evidence that a real, historical human being fitting the new testament description of jesus christ ever actually existed". If this were the case it's remarkable that after several centuries when the leaders of the Roman Empire persecuted and murdered Christians, the Emperor Constantine came to be his follower.

Remarkable? Perhaps, but apart from the scriptures, there just isn't much in the way of historical evidence of the existence of a human religious leader of that name. Historical validation of the existence of someone requires more and the biblical stories are laced with plagiarized fables and historical errors of all sorts. See: http://jesusneverexisted.com/

Mr Humphrys does not seem to be a detached observer. He states on his website "In turns I was both fascinated and appalled by the history of the 'Christian Faith' and have made its legacy and crimes a life-long study, not because – as Christian apologists often imagine, I was ever 'hurt', abused, or rejected by the Church or Christians – but because humanity's fate has for so long been held captive by this pernicious creed. But all religion is inherently dangerous."

I'm unaware of anyone human who is totally objective and "detached". This is not a logical requirement to have a valid viewpoint. It simply serves as a convenient way to dismiss someone with whose views one disagrees. If only completely objective and "detached" historians are given credibility, that means all human historians can be ignored. Convenient if you don't like what they're saying.

Even if you ignore the evidence in the Bible, that view ignores the evidence of non Christian writers such as Josephus (Antiquities XX 9.1) born 37AD who wrote "He [Ananas] assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned." Other writers within a century of Jesus death and resurrection such as Tacitus (Annals of Imperial Rome XV. 44) and Pliny the Younger (Epistles X.96) write about Jesus, his execution and that he was considered a god by his followers, in agreement with the New Testament accounts.

Again, see the site by Ken Humphrys. He goes on at great length to show that the biblical history is not even remotely consistent with typical historical evidence. Various attempts at providing physical evidence have been revealed as elaborate fakes.

Why do such people feel so threatened by Christianity. His credentials as an historian are shown by the statement at the bottom of the first page of the site jesusneverexisted.com/ where he says: The cost to humanity of fifteen centuries of Christian savagery – of hundreds of millions of lives brutalised and truncated, sacrificed to war, torture, pogrom, burning, pestilence and plague – is incalculable. Christianity is the worst disaster in human history The last statement ignores the untold good Christianity has done in fields such a law reform, the establishment of schools, universities, hospitals, and the work of organisations such as the Red Cross, started by Christians.

No doubt that Hitler and Mussolini did some good during their reigns - Mussolini made the trains run on time, Hitler brought Germany out of an economic depression. The fact that christianity encompasses many good people who have not committed horrible acts in the name of their religion doesn't preclude the possibility that the balance sheet overall could be tilted in the direction expressed by Ken. There have been many atrocities in history committed by religious zealots against their perceived "enemies" - hence, I think Ken's reaction is quite understandable, if somewhat extreme.

In what follows I'll comment on other parts of your paper.

Page 3, para. 2. Your argument breaks down when viewed from our religious histories. You were brought up in a Christian household and rejected those beliefs as a child. i rejected the beliefs taught in Sunday School and later came to believe as an adult. People do not have to believe what they are taught. Not being encouraged to think has not been my experience as a Christian. Those teaching me have encouraged it. Christianity is a rational belief system. "Doubting Thomas" was tolerated and came to worship Jesus ("My Lord and my God").

Sorry, but you and I have very different perceptions of the tolerance by religions for those who don't share their beliefs and ask questions. Your experiences are what they are and I certainly can't gainsay your experiences. But your perception of christianity as rational seems very odd to me, since it consistently has asked people to take its tenets on faith (without evidence). I certainly agree that people don't have to believe what they're taught (definitely true in my case), but stray too far from the dogma and you're going to be cast out. Christianity is rational only to the extent that otherwise rational people seem capable of embracing it, which I can only interpret as a form of compartmentalization. If they apply scientific standards of evidence to its "evidence", then it simply melts away.

We may have similar views of some religions. Try and set up a Christian church in Saudi Arabia where only Islam is tolerated.

Religious zealotry is not confined to islam. You can see the anti-islamic backlash around the world by christians, including the furor over the supposed "mosque at Ground Zero." I have no love for islam either but islamic and christian fundamentalists are brothers under the skin, sharing tribalistic bigotry and a willingness to kill for their deity.

Just as you and I will go to the original scientific paper to determine what the author actually said, I'd encourage you to go again to the Bible to determine what the author of the religion expects of his followers. The literature has various forms, one of which is providing an historical account. Look at Luke 1:1-4, where the writer states his intention to write and orderly account for the recipient, Theophilus, so that he will have certainty of what he has been taught. Having dealt in that book with an account of the history of what Jesus did and taught, he continues in his second book, Acts, to record he history of the early church from the time of Jesus ascension.

Just as you or I might believe or disbelieve the thesis of a paper from its internal consistency, the Bible has an internal consistency that gives credence to its truth.

My reading of the bible reveals just the opposite: it's laced with inconsistencies and obvious falsehoods. The only consistency is that the document is what you'd expect from an assembly of manuscripts cobbled together by pre-medieval scribes, written by diverse individuals over a period of centuries. Note that some of the manuscripts written at the same time as the bible were rejected by the clerics of christianity (none of whom were god, by the way), so we have some viewpoints disallowed as apostasy even though the authors had virtually identical credentials to the authors whose works were accepted.

By "a form of compartmentalization" you may mean rational when thinking as scientists but irrational when thinking about their christian faith. See here for a list of many famous scientists who must have suffered from this "malady".

The fact that many scientists share this trait doesn't say anything about its logical validity. A substantially smaller percentage of scientists are religious than in the general public, and if one limits the scientists to, say, members of the National Academy (the most distinguished group of scientists in the USA), the percentage is even lower. Scientific thinking generally conflicts with religious faith but nevertheless some scientists persist in religious beliefs. To do so is, in my view, inconsistent.

Page 3, para 3. Many religions have an horrific history of persecutions of others who do not share their beliefs and Christians are not without blame. They have done this contrary to the teachings of Christ, who told Peter to put away his sword when Jesus was being arrested by the Jewish authorities. Christianity spread throughout the Roman world peacefully and in the face of persecution, and that is the way it spreads today. Please be even handed when speaking of atrocities. Last century atheists such as Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler were the stand outs. Humans, whatever their religion or lack thereof have the potential for despicable acts.

But jesus also said things like:

Matthew 10:34 This and the following verses you quote are interesting ones and I'll comment on them individually. One of the principles of Biblical interpretation is to look at the context of a particular verse. Another is to let the Bible interpret the Bible. Both are relevant in the case of Mt 10:34. If you read verses 34-39 it's clear that Jesus is speaking about the division he will bring in households. But it's not with a physical sword. Families will be divided in their response to Jesus. the sword imagery is used elsewhere in the Bible. Ephesians 6:17 says " take the helmet of salvation, and the the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God," . It's the word of God which is the dividing sword rather than a physical sword.

Luke 12:51 This is similar to what is being said in Mt 10:34

Luke 22:36 A more difficult verse to understand. Again look at the context. In Lk 22:49-51 Jesus stopped Peter from using his sword and heals the injured servant of the high priest. Hardly the action of someone who is encouraging armed resistance. Jesus may be speaking figuratively of a time soon coming when his disciples will be in grave peril and will need to be courageous withstanding their enemies.

Revelation 19:11 Revelation is apocalyptic literature most of which is not mean to be taken literally. In this verse the apostle John is describing his vision of Jesus (called faithful and true) who wages "war" with the "sword which comes out of his mouth" (Rev. 19:15). Being ""The Word of God" (Rev 19:13) it is his word (the Bible) that is his sword coming out of his mouth.

All of these arguments represent what is called "apologetics" - it's a way to rationalize the parts of the bible that conflict with various cherished notions people have about their faith. I find the whole argument about context and allegory to explain away the unpleasant aspects within the bible is a way to "cherry pick" its content. If the bible is the written word of of an infinite deity, then I see no logical way to explain away the bible's contradictions and evident falsehoods. An infinite deity should be able to make its meaning absolutely crystal clear in its written works, without falsehoods and contradictions, rather than something subject to "interpretation" by believers. If you can pick and choose which parts to take literally and those you can handwave away, then your religion becomes uniquely your own, which is fine of course, but it's not totally bible-based.

As for being even-handed ... I see no such obligation in my explanation of my beliefs. But I have no problem conceding the point that humans don't need religion to be brutal. Religion hijacks many human traits that have had evolutionary value, such as tribalism. The supposedly atheist communists you cite simply hijacked the tendency many people have to follow a leader blindly and without question (a tendency exploited by religion, clearly). Hitler was a christian, not an atheist as is often incorrectly claimed.

If Hitler was a Christian then it's reasonable for me to claim I'm an African Pigmy!!! People who are Christians show their faith by what they do (see James 2:14-17). Hitler showed that he was not a Christian by the monstrous things he did.

So if someone commits brutal actions, they're not really christians, despite their upbringing? How do you feel about those christians who murder abortion doctors? How about the popes who authorized the crusades, or the clerics who supported the Inquisition's torture and executions? What about the puritans who burned witches at the stake? And on, and on, and on ... . Your definition of a christian (apparently you can know one when you see one?) excludes a lot of folks who would consider themselves to be christians!

Page 4, paras. 1 and 6. The Bible has a different view of the reasons for the destruction of the enemies of the Israelites in conquering the land promised to Abraham in about 1400BC ( see Genesis 15:12-16). This is God's judgement on these peoples for their abominable practices (see Genesis 15:16, Exodus 34:11-16). Note also that the israelites in the promised land were to be faithful to God. The penalty for disobedience was the loss of the land. This happened to the northern tribes in 722BC (conquered by the Assyrians) and in 586BC to the southern tribes (conquered by the Babylonians). God both judges and saves.

So wholesale slaughter is OK whenever one has god's imprimatur for doing it? Not coincidentally, lots of people engaging in atrocities claim precisely that.

What the Israelites did in Old Testament times was right if it was sanctioned by God as an act of God's judgement.

No matter how brutal? Guess it doesn't pay to get on god's bad side, eh? Because god is more than willing to slaughter (or sanction the slaughter of) those who don't accept his hegemony.

Such activities can never be justifies today because we are in in the time after the first coming of Jesus, the time of the new covenant between God and his people. In old testament times the Israelites were God's special chosen people who were to be a special nation, living in obedience to God. Since the death and resurrection of Jesus Gods people are those who trust and follow Jesus. Civil authorities are those who are to administer justice until the return of Jesus who will then judge everyone.

An awful lot of brutality has been perpetrated in jesus' name as well ... and aren't jesus and god the same?

You seem to be believing the Old Testament account here and later reject the Old Testament as not historical.

So if I reject it as a historical document, then I can assume that all that it records is a fable? So all the slaughter so willingly claimed by believers in the old testament can be ignored as myth? If so, it remains a rather damning fact that they CLAIM these are the deeds justified by a "loving" god, who created all, including those whom he commands to be blotted from the face of the Earth.

I don't follow your argument here. Either the Old Testament is an historical document or it is not. believing or disbelieving does not alter its historicity. if someone deserves judgement then it is right that they be fairly judged.

Let me try to be more clear. I agree - it's either a historical document, or it's not. There's evidence (see Ken Humphrey's site) that the bible contains a lot of "information" that is either not supported by the standards of historical evidence, or is outright in contradiction to existing historical evidence. Thus, I can only conclude that it's not a historical document and it can't be used in support of any argument based on the assumption that it is a historical document. If it's not historical, it's of some relevance that many christians nevertheless are willing to embrace the brutal deeds sanctioned by their presumably "loving" deity.

Page 4, para. 2. Rejection all religions is rather dangerous if one is true. if you reject all religions don't you have also to reject your own? Atheists are very religious, believing that there is no God.

Your definition of atheism isn't correct. Atheism is not the belief there is no god, but rather the absence of belief in a supernatural deity. These are not logically equivalent. Some of us do, indeed, believe in the nonexistence of god, but not all of us. But even if your definition is correct, my supposed "religion" would not include any supernatural being who commands me to do whatever he says, which includes going against the very commandments he gave me to guide my life. I wouldn't have any dogma I was commanded to follow. I would have no sacred texts. I would accept no authority figures to tell me what to do. Not much in the way of a religion, no?

Page 4, para. 6. See my earlier comments on the nature of faith.

And my earlier responses.

Page 5, para 4. Truth in Christianity is absolutely fundamental. Jesus claimed to be "the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6). How can one of the 10 commandments "not be a big deal"? Other parts of the Bible also prohibit lying (Leviticus 19:11&12; Colossians 3:9; Ephesians 4:25).

If christians considered lying to be a mortal sin - the equivalent to murder - then all of us would have to be condemned in the same way that murderers are condemned since all of us have lied at one time or another. Fortunately, religions through history have chosen to be rather more tolerant of lying than murder (e.g., catholic priests regarding their molesting of children). I note, by the way, no commandment against rape or bestiality or sodomy or homosexuality. Apparently, those weren't a big enough deal in the late Bronze Age to merit being included in the list offered by Moses ... and jesus never saw fit to offer any amendments to the Big 10, although such deeds are condemned in various scriptural passages.

Though the Old Testament did not prescribe capital punishment for all offenses ALL of us ARE condemned by God if we break any of his laws. The penalty for disobedience of God is death. Adam and Eve died for their rebellion against God. In the OT the sacrificial system was the means of atoning for sins. With the coming of Jesus and his death as an atonement for our sins, and the means of forgiveness is relationship with him.

So any "offense" against god incurs the death penalty? That's an interesting interpretation of biblical law. Do people so judged go to heaven ... or to hell? Or do they stay in limbo (purgatory?)? Or do they just disappear?

You seem to think only of the 10 commandments as "commandments". All of the law in the Old Testament (in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) is commandment, God commanding his people how they are to relate to him and each other. The prohibition of rape etc. are commandments of God.

Still, don't you find it somewhat curious that rape wasn't included in the 10 commandments? Apparently, it was left out for some "mysterious" reason, to be mentioned later in the bible.

Page 6, para 1 and following. Your statement that "science cannot accept any supernatural explanations" is being rather dogmatic. It seems to be saying that Christian scientists (of whom there have been, and are, many who have made important contributions to science), who do accept the supernatural, are not proper scientists. It's interesting that science has flourished since the reformation of the 16th century, when Christians such as Luther rediscovered the truth and authority of the Bible.

Perhaps I am being dogmatic, but the very notion of supernatural explanations for things we see in the natural world is antithetical to science. Science has flourished since then in spite of, not because of, the christian religion. If you believe that one can be a scientist and at the same time accept supernatural "explanations" for natural phenomena, then you must indeed be compartmentalizing. What explanatory power does "God did it!" have? Precisely none.

Natural phenomena do have natural explanations which scientists try to understand. Supernatural events such as those performed by Jesus, eg. his seven "signs" in John's gospel including his raising from the dead of his friend Lazarus in chapter 11, don't have a scientific explanation. They are not natural events.

So if a single supernatural event could be documented, that would constitute evidence of the deity, right? Any supernatural events you can call to mind, apart from those listed in the bible? It seems that supernatural events ceased about 2000 years ago. We seem to have none in recent history to which we can point for evidence of the deity. Thus, we seem to be required to accept the biblical accounts on faith (i.e., sans any tangible evidence).

Page 7, para 1. Unquestioning belief is not the highest standard of Christian faith. See my para. 3 above.

According to you. Biblical passages, like those in Matthew 18 and Mark 10 regarding "child-like faith" make it pretty evident that it's expected that child-like acceptance of dogma is pretty much the gold standard for faith.

In these chapters Jesus is talking about relationship with him rather than accepting dogma. Children in a normal relationship with a parent are trusting. Jesus is saying that to be in relationship with him requires the same kind of trust that a child has with a loving parent.

That's your interpretation of those passages. I think there's room for different interpretations, and the one that I have been emphasizing is what I was taught during the unsuccessful attempt at christian indoctrination that I experienced. Your interpretation differs from what I was taught to believe, so it seems that many clerics would disagree with your apologetic interpretation.

Page 8, para 3. The original languages of he Bible are Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). The New Testament books were written between 40 and 100AD. Copies of them exist today, dated within 40-90 years of them being written, a situation unparalled by any other ancient literature. Our translations of them today are done from a Greek text derived from these ancient documents. They are not translations of translations. Our Old Testament is based on the Jewish Bible called the Masoretic text, compiled from about the 7th to 10th century AD. This compares well with the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of which are parts of the Old Testament dated from around the time of Jesus, And the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament done in the century or so before Jesus. The Bible is a very reliable document.

Not according to Ken Humphreys ... visit the site and consider what it shows.

His credentials as an historian are shown by the web address. Very few historians, non christians included, believe that Jesus never existed.

Can you provide any evidence of that? Has anyone conducted a survey of historians on this subject? Has that been published somewhere in a refereed journal? Do you suppose there might be a bias such that christian historians are more likely to believe in the historical reality of jesus than, say, atheist historians? Truth (historical or scientific) is not decided by a majority vote, anyway. I dispute that Ken's web address constitutes any negative evidence of his credentials as a historian. He has done a lot of historical research and reached a conclusion. Does that disqualify him as a historian? How many historians have done research and thereby reached conclusions? Do you wish to dismiss them all?

Page 8, para. 4. Before I read the New Testament I thought that it was contradictory. On reading it I could not find them. The New Testament was endorsed by a council of leading Christians. But the endorsement was of what was generally accepted at the time. There are existing copies that include much or all of the New Testament dating from around 200AD, well before its formal acceptance. You mention "original texts by disciples of christ that weren't included in the "approved" version of the new testament" What were they?

There are many such texts. See: http://aggreen.net/bible/noncanon.html

Such texts are noncanonical because the early church did not accept them as genuine accounts of the life of Christ.

Yes, I understand that. And apparently you accept their analysis as conclusive and not worthy of reconsideration. This sounds rather like the perspective of someone who is willing to accept virtually anything from an "authoritative" source. Very different from the perspective of a scientist, is it not?

Page 9, para. 1. There was a recent example of a prediction of the second coming of Christ. When such claims are made we know that they are wrong because Jesus said that only the Father knows when he will return.

See the site at: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/paul_carlson/nt_contradictions.html

There it says:

There are several passages in the gospels where Jesus says he will return in the disciples' lifetime (Mark 13:30, Matthew 10:23, 16:28, 24:34, Luke 21:32, etc.).

Evidently, god the father gave jesus some bad information.

Some of these verses are part of the same teachings of Jesus (Mk 13:30, Mt 24:32 and Lk 21:32) that cover the entire chapters. Understanding all of the teaching is difficult. A sermon on Luke 21 that I found convincing at the time is at: http://sydneycathedral.com/sermons/luke-2010/jesus-judgement Mt 10:23 and Mt 16:28 are again difficult verses. Mt 10:23 is in the context of Jesus speaking of the persecution that his evangelising disciples will suffer (verses 16-23) He is telling them to move on when they encounter persecution. The reference to Jesus (the Son of Man) coming (vs 23) is more likely a reference to his post resurrection ascension to his position of power and authority than to his second coming to earth as Judge. The term "Son of Man" that Jesus applies to himself has its origins in Daniel 7:13-14, where this son of man comes to God and receives his kingdom, controlling the whole earth. Mt 16:28 comes at the end of a section of Jesus teaching where he tells his followers to be single minded in their discipleship. Again, it is more likely a reference to his post resurrection coming to his kingdom than his second coming, to which he refers in verse 27.

Interesting that you use the word "difficult" in the context of trying to understand these passages. It seems to me (see previous similar comments) that an infinite deity speaking via the written word would be able to make his meanings crystal clear to any reader without ambiguity or logical problems. If we have to go through convoluted rationalizations to reconcile these passages with the reality that the second coming did not in fact occur within the lives of the disciples, then perhaps a logical conclusion would be that this is not the work of divine inspiration but that of fallible humans, who have created contradictions and incorporated clear falsehoods precisely because the document is human, not divine.

Christianity doesn't claim that death is an illusion. Death was (and is) the punishment for rebellion against God (see Genesis 3:3).

Hmmmm ... so let me get this straight. You die and if you fail to follow dogma, you're on the way to eternal damnation. You do the right things and you go sit in heaven at the side of god. Where is the death there? Either way, you live on eternally ... either in a nice place or a bad place.

We need some definitions. There is physical death, which we all will experience unless Jesus returns in our life time, and there is spiritual death. Jesus refers to the "dead" in both states in Matthew 8:22 where a disciple asks permission from Jesus to bury his father. Jesus says to him "Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead". So he is saying that the spiritually dead should bury the physically dead, there are two kinds of "dead".

Back to your proposition. Salvation isn't a matter of following dogma, it's determined by a relationship, a person's relationship to Jesus. If they follow him then they are alive both spiritually and physically. If a person does not follow Jesus they are alive physically but dead spiritually. A spiritually dead person, if they do not come alive spiritually by following Jesus (be born again), will die physically and suffer the judgement of God eternally. A spiritually alive person will die physically, but be resurrected physically and live eternally with God.

If salvation isn't the result of following dogma, then why does not following dogma result in damnation? Some sort of religious hysteresis at work here? I believe the argument goes along the lines that someone not a christian is apparently doomed to damnation, at some point (perhaps after physical death or perhaps only when the "rapture" occurs). Biblical scholars have been debating for some time, with no apparent consensus ruling, about the disposition of the human soul after physical death. Some believe that physical death is followed immediately by either ascent into heaven or descent into hell, whereas others believe that the soul goes into some sort of limbo to await the second coming of christ. In either case, eventually everyone will wind up either in heaven or hell, right? One is nice, one is bad, but in either case, you're immortal - do I have it right?

Most denominations of christianity have arisen over disputes about dogma. Believe X, you're in with faith X'. Believe in Y, you're in with faith Y'. And so on for 40,000+ different flavors of christianity. It seems that most of them believe that anything other than their version of christianity is apostasy - see your comment about the canonical versions of the bible. Apostasy constitutes spiritual death, no?

Page 9, para. 2. Concerning life after death, the prime evidence for this is the the resurrection of Jesus and the testimony of the witness in the New Testament to this event. Jesus was resurrected with a physical body and this shows that our resurrection will also be with a physical body.

Theologians differ on this specific point. Evidently, you claim to know truth, as revealed to you by your interpretation of scripture.

Theologians differ on many points and we can make a judgement of their opinions against the gold standard, what is written in the Bible. Jesus invited the doubting Thomas to touch him (John 20:27) after his resurrection. He also ate with his disciples (Luke 24:41-43). Philippians 3:20&21 indicates that we shall have a resurrection body like Christ's.

So we can take everything in the bible literally? After all, you suggest it's the "gold standard" for every issue. Are you changing your mind about the bible? Or do you still reserve the right to interpret it for yourself? I don't have a problem with that, but I think a lot of clerics might find your cherry-picking to be apostasy! It's somewhat disappointing that jesus has never invited me to touch his physical self after I saw him crucified. I've been asked to accept all of that without evidence, after all.

Page 9, last para. Making a life choice out of fear is a poor basis for belief (if that is possible). Why not make the choice based on gratitude for what God has done in Christ? "For God so loved the world that the gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" - John 3:16.

But that seems to be the basis for the argument made on behalf of being a believer - Pascal's wager.

Page 10, para. 4. The Christian view is that we are to be wise stewards of the resources God has given us.

I know many christians who don't accept this particular view ... rather, their notion of wise stewardship is that we can do pretty much whatever we want with this world.

Page 11, para. 1. If you read the Bible, Christianity begins before the creation The coming of Jesus was planned before there was a creation. Relationship with God has always been on the basis of faith or trust in Him. The apostle Paul gives the example of Abraham, who lived about 4000BC (see Romans 4:1-12). The first humans sinned because they did not trust and obey God.

I've read the Bible and it seems we come to rather different conclusions after doing so. This is pretty much the norm, methinks.

Page 12, para. 2. It's good to learn that you believe in the "golden rule". Perhaps your early Christian education is responsible for this belief. It's interesting that Jesus statement of it, is his summary of the teaching of the Old Testament through the Law and the Prophets, It predates his time on Earth. Matthew 7:12 states, quoting Jesus "So whatever you wish that others would do for you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

I doubt that it was my christian upbringing that led me to accept the golden rule ... the logic of it seems pretty compelling, for the most part. However, suppose I'm a masochist, and I want people to beat me up? Does that mean I should go out and beat up other people?

I don't thinks Jesus meant the rule to be applied in this sense.

Couldn't an infinite deity have anticipated this logical problem with the golden rule, and provided some sort of qualification for this exception? You seem to be presuming the intent of an infinite deity here. By the way, the golden rule predates jesus, with its roots lost in prehistoric antiquity.

Page 14, second para. I think that you might be referring to Abraham rather than Job. Genesis 22 begins "After these things God tested Abraham.....". The test was being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. In the New Testament (Hebrews 11:17-19) Abraham is commended for his faith or trust in God. He believed that God was able to bring isaac back from death.

Oops. I may need to go back and fix that, I guess. I'll check it out, thanks. (done)

Earlier in this paragraph you accuse moderate (Christians?) of "cherrypicking". It's rather a long bow to associate the Bible's condemnation of homosexual behaviour with an encouragement to kill them. Where does the Bible suggest that? The Bible also condemns adultery, fornication, stealing etc. Are moderates "cherrypicking" if we do not encouraging the death of people who do these things?

The bible clearly condemns homosexuals by exclusion - see http://carm.org/homosexuality :

• Lev. 18:22, "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination."
• Lev. 20:13, "If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltness is upon them"
• 1 Cor. 6:9-10, "Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God."
• Rom. 1:26-28, "For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper."

A considerable amount of "immoral" behavior apparently does warrant death, including homosexuality. Consider the following selection:

Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_verses_in_the_Bible_advocate_killing_non_believers#ixzz1NxVzCKz6

I should have been a little more specific. All of the Old Testament references you quote are the law that applies to the Old Testament people of God, the Israelites. It also comprised their national law. They were to be a distinctly different people. Since the coming of Jesus God's people are every person who trusts and follows Jesus. God's people are now from every nation. The Old Testament laws you quote are no longer applied as civil laws. For Christians, however, the same prohibitions apply.

I'm confused here. Yes, of course, the OT believers (jews) were different from christians and those jews operated under civil laws. But biblical laws are not the same as civil laws (except in theocracies). Of course, it seems that the jewish state was a theocracy back then. Nevertheless, in several NT passages, christ makes it very clear that he's on the same side (since he's the same entity!) as the OT god - he's all about the same laws as the OT god!! Hence, he's all for killing homosexuals and assorted unbelievers. Have you killed your share of homosexuals lately? Isn't that consistent with biblical obligations for believers?

Page 15, para. 3. Good to see that you admit the possibility of a creator. But to say that such a being is "certainly not infinitely wise" is something of an assumption.

Oh? So you believe in absolute wisdom on behalf of your deity, then? How do you define wisdom?

Yes, God is infinitely wise. Wisdom involves knowledge, right actions and right attitudes.

You've adroitly avoided defining what wisdom is here. Some have asserted that god is omniscient, which means this deity knows everything, without any limits. That would constitute a form of wisdom, of course. Is this what you mean?

In terms of keeping God's laws, the Israelites were told (Deuteronomy 4:6) "Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For Christians today we show wisdom by how well we obey God's requirements of us. The wise King Solomon wrote (Proverbs 9:10), "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy One is insight."

And I say that fear of a nonexistent deity is the beginning of enslavement to clerics and mystics who can't provide a shred of tangible evidence of their divine inspiration. I simply don't see that as wisdom, but rather as a form of acceptance of the power of authority over people. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as I recall.

Jesus is the "tangible way" God shows his existence.

Assuming you accept jesus of the scriptures as a real historical figure and as the deity.

The truth of Jesus being the tangible way God shows his existence does not depend on a person accepting him as historical and the deity, or not. He either is or he isn't.

Yes, no doubt of that. And jesus hasn't stepped up and introduced himself to me, showing me by his supernatural abilities that he is indeed who he claims to be. Hence, to date, I continue to have no "tangible" evidence that jesus (as the tri-une god figure) exists.

Page 15, last para. I also see life and this wonderful world as a great gift. But if they are a gift, from whom do they come?

I thought I explained that. I don't know and I don't care.

Page 16, para. 2. Why are your moral standards any better than those of others?

I don't think I've made such a claim.

Chuck, thanks for putting your views out for scrutiny. I pray that we will both come to a better understanding of the truth. Do feel free to post this with your comments.

Thanks, John. I appreciate your willingness to have a civil discussion about these important issues. I have always respected you and your right to hold views different from mine - although I don't necessarily respect those beliefs, per se.

I don't respect your beliefs and I don't care if you're offended. Cheers. - Pat Condell (from my email signature file)

This is contrary to the "Golden Rule".

Actually, it's not. I'm not asking anyone to respect my beliefs and if I'm offended by someone who fails to do so, it's my problem, not theirs! I respect you, but I don't necessarily respect your beliefs! Can you understand that distinction? My respect is not dependent on you agreeing with me - rather, it's based on our friendship and my respect for your work as a scientist.

A Facebook dialog, added 05 June 2011: my comments are in blue. A believer responded to my having posted this article on Facebook:

The article assumes, of course, that he is a believer, and that he interprets the Bible correctly. It's easy to point at someone and say see? There is no God, and Christianity isn't true...by those who point out false beliefs. If I say 1+1 ...= 3, does that mean that 1+1 =2 isn't true? But more pointedly, there IS enormous personal harm that the author does not talk about. Destroying one's faith is far worse than anything John Mill noted in his article. He shouldn't have his freedom of speech taken away by unbelievers, but by those who DO believe, as the Apostle Paul taught, when he simply said this about those who teach falsely and destroy the faith of others: "They must be silenced". This is true of Harold Camping, Benny Hinn, and shysters who lead people to Hell "in Jesus name" by their false teaching. And as a Christian, I despise Camping's teachings, he's been off the rails since the 1940s, as a an old tape that came up from then has shown. God will punish him and false teachers/prophets severely...unless he repents, of course, which I pray for, and that he renounces all this complete nonsense that he teaches.

I can't even imagine what your 1+1=3 point is about. As a rule, most christians are well-known for claiming that THEIR particular interpretation of the faith is the correct one, and other brands of christianity are spreading falsities... to a greater or lesser extent. Apparently, either one of the 40,000+ brands of Christianity is the one true faith and all the others are false teachings ... or ... none of them may be true. I assume you think yours is the one correct version, no?

OK, let me get to the point. I believe what God says is true, and not going beyond what He says it is...such as when Jesus will return. he says he would, but Jesus himself said that NO ONE knows the day or the hour...which Harold flatly denies is true. When you do stuff like that, you get dangerous spiritual garbage that comes out of the mouth. It is true that Jesus claimed to be (and is) the Son of God, and that the Bible is inerrant, and yes, that apart from Jesus, you are separated from God in hell forever; but repentance and faith in Christ brings deliverance from that..thus the "good news". That there is no other God? Absolutely. While there are many denominations (usually with services varying a bit with how they are done), my biggest concern is that quite a few are or have gone off track with teaching, and not sticking with what the Bible teaches. "What's the harm?", John Mill asks, when you go outside or beyond the Bible? Well, people think Christians are fools or scary in their beliefs, which, sadly, is a logical stance with what Harold Camping teaches, and his followers believe. What also makes me angry is that other Christians who are much more public don't "call these guys out". The eternal consequences of teaching such folly is or can be far, far beyond the ramifications John describes in that article. Harold Camping is making us look like idiots at best, and sending people to hell at worst by making people think Christianity isn't true...because of his false teaching.

I can cite chapter and verse in the New Testament where jesus promised his return during the lifetimes of the disciples. You don't believe that?

It could have happened then, sure, but it doesn't say specifically that he would come back then. Jesus himself said "you do not know the day, or the hour". What verses do you speak of? ... [in response to another FB poster] The second part of Acts chapter 17 verse 11 says what the people did with the Apostle Paul's teaching: "...they received the word with the greatest eagerness of mind, carefully examining the Scriptures daily as to whether these things were so." See: if they had examined Camping's claim that he knew the date of Jesus return, heck...they could even Google for such a verse, and immediately hit Matthew chapter 25, verse 13, where Jesus says that you don't know the date and hour of His return! So, had they followed Acts 17:11, and had done a check of the Bible and had seen that verse...it's very clear what Jesus said. This is why, when you don't read and understand what you say you believe, you can be very dangerous to yourself and others. When our pastor teaches, I'm also the sound board guy...and I told him, and he agrees, that if I catch any false teaching in the moment, I hit the "mute" button on his microphone, and stop to correct him. If he refuses to be corrected, the "mute" button stays on (it has never and shouldn't happen, but I never let my guard down). An engineer, quite bluntly, should mute Mr. Camping as he goes on the air. For the sake of everyone's souls, and to stop discrediting and dishonoring God.

Mark 13:30, Matthew 10:23, 16:28, 24:34, Luke 21:32 for starters. So you can recognize any false teachings? What a great comfort ... to know absolute truth in something as challenging as theology!

Start with Mark 13:30. "This" generation is the generation where you see all these things happen. But those "things" Jesus had referred to had not already happened, as seen in verse 24: "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give ...its light". Has that happened yet? No. Therefore, it is a prophetic verse, to happen sometime in the future. Matthew 10:23 refers to 10:22, again to happen at a future time "to the end", which has not come yet. Matthew 10:23 is a prediction of the transfiguration, which happened in glory a week after Jesus spoke that verse. 24:34, and Luke 21:32, see the response to Mark 13:30.

[added content] So it comes down to how the bible defines "generation"? Nonsense!! The way the bible uses "generation" elsewhere is the standard way we use it today. This specious argument is typical of the methods by which christians rationalize the bible, attempting to justify their beliefs – see this site and review these apologetics sites here and here. Christians literally have had centuries to try to figure out ways to explain away the embarrassing falsehoods and contradictions of the bible, so there's a lot of apologetics out there. [end added content]

[in response to another FB poster] I am not talking down to anyone; I am merely saying what God's Word is saying. Nothing more, and nothing less.

So you're god's spokesman on Earth?

I can not remotely sum it up better than what 2nd Corinthians chapter 5 verse 20 says: We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God.

I take that as a yes to my question. Save your implorations for someone else - they're implicitly insulting and patronizing. In my world, it's up to your god to make the first move. Show me some tangible evidence this deity exists and is what the bible says and I'll consider a reconciliation.

For more information, see:

God is imaginary

Jesus never existed

Pat Condell's Godless Comedy

The American Heathen

Richard Dawkins

Sam Harris

Free Thought Radio