Friday, January 28, 2005

Christianity with no redemption story?

For the last couple of days I've been reading a book by John Shelby Spong called Why Christianity Must Change or Die. It has told me absolutely nothing that I don't already know. What makes it fascinating is that he describes many of the most devistating arguments against God and against Christianity and agrees with them, but he doesn't come to the conclusion that Christianity is bunk. He still describes himself as a Christian believer.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter entitled "Jesus as Rescuer: An Image That Has to Go"(which I read at 3:00am this morning in a fit of insomnia):

What would the concept of a primal fall of human life into sin possible mean to those creatures who only recently evolved into the stage of the world and who give no evidence that their stay will be permanent? How can there be a fall into sin if there has never been perfection from which to fall? What kind of deity is it who would require of us a sacrificial offering to overcome a chasm that is now understood to be non-existent? Why would anyone be drawn to an image of a divine rescuer who, with his self-sacrifice, would pay the price of sin? The traditional understanding of salvation history and the various theories of atonement all come tumbling down at this point, and this includes the interpretation we have traditionally imposed upon the cross of Calvary.

Wow. That is a mouthful. I can tell why this guy is controversial--about 4-5 years ago if anyone started telling me this stuff I would have likely stuck my fingers in my ears and yelled "lalalala I can't hear you!" It would have been such a negation of my worldview I wouldn't have stood for it.

He traces the "salvation story" of Christianity from the Garden of Eden all the way to the letters of Paul and the Gospels, as I've always heard it described. (Like I said, he has said nothing I don't already know.) Then he suggests that this is all interpretation that has been forced onto the biblical story and the life of Jesus by theologians from the first century to the present--that it is a story based in "pre-Darwinian superstition and post-Darwinian nonsense" and needs to go. But he also thinks that if Jesus had been therefore nothing but a "good teacher or a good example" that the devotion to him would not lasted nearly as long as it has.

Yet the Jesus portrayed in the creedal statement "as one who, for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven" simply no longer communicates to our world. These concepts must be uprooted and dismissed. If the Christ experience is real, then we must find a new way to talk about it.

Call it conditioning if you like, but I’m having a hard time separating Christianity from this salvation story he is calling “pre-Darwinian superstition.” This is one of the reasons I don’t believe in Christianity. The evolution of the human race means no literal fall, no literal original sin, no need for salvation from sin, no need for a self-sacrificing savior. It is very fascinating to me to see a Bishop honestly try to adjust his religion to be consistent with modern knowledge of the world. I’m only about half-way though the book now, and I’m looking forward to finding out what he has to say next.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

more changes

I've tweeked the design of the blog a bit more today. Changed the background color of the sidebar and added a table border. I hope you like it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


I went to see the pastor at First Unitarian about joining the church today. However, I didn’t sign the book . . . I feel like there is some little voice inside of me saying “not yet.” I don’t know really what the deal is. I’ve loved going to the church and to activities associated with the church. I feel I’ve grown spiritually (if that is the right word) by being exposed to so many different viewpoints. At least I’ve learned some patience and listening skills (maybe that’s as spiritual as it gets :-). But I feel something holding me back—and as there is no hurry and I’m under no pressure, I’ve decided to wait.

And partly due to some conversations I’ve had with a couple of people at First U—including a conversation with the pastor earlier today—I’m starting to think that “atheist” is not a very accurate label for what I am.

As I write, I’m listening to a song by The Alan Parsons Project. The last lines from the song The Three of Me sum up how I feel about the whole issue sometimes.

One minute I think I know what I mean, next I hear voices inside that disagree. Why are they laughing at me?

It’s is not like I’m considering the existence of the old evangelical Christian God that I used to believe in. I’m not even considering any kind of humanized or personal god. I have considered god to be a metaphor for nature—thus my pantheist bent. I feel a little strange telling people I’m a pantheist though (it’s not something most people seem to understand). On the e-mail newsletters I get from American Atheists there is a quote that says “atheist” is an unambiguous term, but anymore I don’t think that is the case. It’s all strange—like if I tell people I’m an atheist I need to also tell them just what I mean by “god.”

It also doesn’t help the situation to explain that I’m a Unitarian Universalist either. That seems to be more confusing than “pantheist.” LOL Particularly since UUism apparently isn’t really a religion at all, but rather a confederation of people with lots of different religions. (This is not why I’m delaying joining BTW. I think this is one of the beauties of UUism.)

Anyway, as much as I would like to have an easy term to describe the state of my belief (or disbelief) to other people, first I feel a need to describe it to myself. Naturalistic pantheism works fairly well as a description actually. No god higher than nature. And at the same time this is a "god" far bigger than our limited human minds. One that we can work towards understanding, though I doubt we will ever totally understand the Universe. The "all in all" as I like to think of it. (I did get that phrase out of a Christian praise and worship song, btw. I think it is more descriptive of the Universe than Jesus, though.)

Perhaps if people ask me about my beliefs, I'll just tell them that I am a Freethinker. "One who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority," as it is defined in my Marrriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary. This is vague but accurate. Well, at least it is an ideal that I prize.

Then, if they want more detail, I can get into Naturalistic Pantheism. But only after I make sure they do not need to go off somewhere in a hurry. :)

I've also found this quote in freedom: Quotes and passages from the world's greatest freethinkers. I think it's appropriate to my spiritual journey (I still can't get over my use of that word. LOL)

I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved [and I cannot resist forming one on every subject] as soon as the facts are shown to be opposed to it. –Charles Darwin

I feel better now :)

Friday, January 21, 2005

what's up?

I'm going to take a momentary break from religious/philosophical musings and just give an overview of what is going on in my life as of today:

I've just finished my second week of classes for the semester, and so far all is going well. Here is the list of classes I'm taking this semester:

  • Intro to Corporate Finance (FIN301)

  • CIS Development Project (CIS420)

  • Database Security (CIS483)

  • ASP.NET (Satudays in February) (CIS390)

  • Visual Basic (Saturdays in April) (CIS392)

The development project is actually an continuation of the Analysis and Design class I took last semester--this semester we actually get to build the system. And we have new groups. I suspect this class will make me very busy when it really gets going; last night was my first four-hour long meeting with my group (which we have decided to name FocusPoint--a name found while brainstorming over e-mail.) I feel pretty optimistic about this class. It will be a whole lot of work but I think it will be fun.

Corporate Finance isn't exactly one of my favorite topics, but I like quantitative work and I think knowing this stuff will be really useful if I end up doing a lot of project work. And I like my prof too--he has a lot of knowledge and enthusiasm about the topic. That does make the class more interesting, and I have an easier time being positive about a subject when the prof is excited about it.

Then there is Database Security, which is part of the new Information Security concentration this is offered to CIS majors. As I took Intro to Database last semester, I think this is a good continuation of that class. Also, I had this prof for Business Data Communications last semester, and I greatly enjoyed his class. He was also the one to spearhead the InfoSec program at UofL. I'd like to go ahead and get the InfoSec concentration (which would result in a certification on my diploma), though it would inevitably push my graduation date to Spring 2006 rather than Fall 2005. It would be worth it though, expecially since I would only need to take classes part-time in the spring.

The other two classes haven't started yet. But I will need to learn ASP.NET for the development project anyway, so I'm really glad I decided to enroll in it.

I'm still looking for a co-op, which I need to graduate. I've send my resume to a couple of places that are posted on the UofL site, but I haven't heard back yet.

Since this has turned out to be a rather long post, I think I'll save the rest of my life for a later entry. So check back soon :)

Monday, January 17, 2005

Sunday, January 16, 2005

pesky activist judge ;-)

Score another for the separation of church and state! I think the judge rightly stated the crux of the issue:

"While evolution is subject to criticism, particularly with respect to the mechanism by which it occurred, the sticker misleads students regarding the significance and value of evolution in the scientific community."

Judge orders removal of evolution stickers from textbooks in Georgia schools

To bad the school had to be ordered to do it.

(Quote added on 01/18/05)

Joining First Unitarian Church

Today I have decided to go ahead and join First Unitarian Church. I've been thinking about it for quite a while, so after the service this morning I asked about membership and filled out a little card to get the ball rolling.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

extraordinary claims . . .

For all my talk about people getting offended at their beliefs being questioned, I have to be honest and admit that I get rather offended when people tell me I shouldn't be so skeptical (I was told that once, though very indirectly.) It is like they are affronting my entire way of thinking, as skepticism is a thought process and not a belief. It is, as Carl Sagan put it, the means of separating deep insights from deep nonsense.

(In case you haven't been following the blog, I'm referring to the post entitled "talking to people who believe weird things.")

That being said, I think I've come a long way regarding religious language and such since I started considering myself an atheist. For a while, any religous language bothered me. I was paranoid about going to church functions because I was worried about people asking where I'd been or how my relationship with god was or something like that. I didn't want to be an atheist surrounded by Christians just like I don't like being a skeptic surrounded by believers. I like fitting in. Who doesn't? I think I have matured a bit as I no longer cringe when people talk about "what god has done for them" or whatever, because I'm able to understand that they are just framing what happened to them in terms of their religion. Whether they actually literally believe god did it or not is nothing to me. And I've also found that I don't have any problem listing to the views of religions that are unfamiliar to me, like Hinduism or Islam or whatever. I had to come to a point where I had to totally reject all religion as bad first--I think in order to get the old Christian dogma out of my head. Now I don't mind what people believe or how they talk as long as their ethics are compatable with basic humanistic values.

I'm having a bit more trouble taking New Age type believers seriously. That comes both from my former evangelical upbringing and my current rationalistic idealism, and I seem to be having a bit harder time getting over it.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not considering that astrology, past lives, or whatever else could be true--or that all claims have equal claim to truth. If they make extraordinary claims, they need to be able to come up with extraordinary evidence (at least if they want people to take them seriously). I could go into a list of problems I have with new age beliefs--starting with the bunk advice people get from horoscopes. But we should have respect for people, even if they believe in weird things.

Monday, January 10, 2005

your age on other worlds

Check this out! I'm just 2.6 years old (in Jovian years, that is.)
I also made an observation that I'm 39.9 in Venusian years, and 36.9 in Venusian days. Incredible how slowly Venus rotates.

Your Age on Other Worlds

talking to people who believe weird things

I've found myself in a bit of an odd situation, and I'm still wondering just how to deal with it. In my activities in my Unitarian church, I've made friends with several people who believe things that I think are just weird. Astrology, and psychic powers and universal consciousness and that sort of thing. Now don't get me wrong, these all seem to be very intelligent and educated people--you can tell just by talking with them for a while. After talking to one lady there, I even seriously reconsidered my views on astrology, but I can't help coming to the same conclusion that I always have: there is no possible way I can believe that stuff! It just doesn't pass the test of skepticism, and I cannot in good conscience say "well, maybe it's true . . ."

But my worry is more about social issues than it is about the metaphysical. I'm worried about falling into the same trap as I would in a Sunday School class: challenging the popular opinion. If you are a freethinker who has every gone to a Bible study or Sunday School class in a typical evangelical protestant church, you may have found out quickly that they are not usually interesting in academic discussions that challenge their traditional religious views. They don't want to talk about things like, say, how paganism influenced the origins of Christianity. Or how perhaps the biblical author was mistaken, or how their agenda to convert people may have influenced their writing . . . NO! Just the mention of this sort of thing will get you some dirty looks, at the very least. And don't dare sit in Sunday School and say something like "As an atheist, this is how I understand ______." (fill in the blank).

But sometimes at the Unitarian meetings I still get that old familiar knot in my stomach, that feeling that I must not speak out what I'm really thinking, that I must sensor myself. I have gotten looks when expressing my skeptical views that seemed to say to me "Don't you dare even suggest that astrology, or near death experiences, or life after death, or whatever is not true!" I do get away with a whole lot more than I would at any evangelical church, I take it as a cost of inclusion that I must be able to tolerate the holders of some viewpoints that I think are totally bunk.

In the last SMART meeting I attended, the topic was "books that have influenced your life." One of the books I took was Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I wanted to read a passage aloud to the group but had a bit of difficulty finding something that would not offend believers in the paranormal too badly. This is a portion what I chose:

Science, Ann Druyan notes, is forever whispering in our ears, "Remember, you're very new at this. You might be mistaken. You've been wrong before." despite all the talk of humility, show me something comparable in religion. Scripture is said to be divinely inspired--a phrase with many meanings. But what if it is simply made up by fallible humans? Miracles are attested, but what if they are instead some mix of charlatanry, unfamiliar states of consciousness, misapprehensions of natural phenomena, and mental illness? No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seems to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety, and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science. The fact that so little of the findings of science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration.

But of course I might be wrong.

There was a moment of nervous sounding laughter after that last line. But I can't help it--I think Carl had it right.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

on the "fully man, fully god" issue

Before I decided that it was pointless to carry on the debate any longer (see the comments at "a kinder, gentler god)," I asked the members of the Extian mailing list if those who are more knowledgeable of church history than I am could send me some information on the topic. After all the work they spent in gathering this stuff, I'd feel bad if I didn't use it. ;)

OK Mikel, I skimmed the exchange and got where he was coming from. Here's some things to consider.

Your opponent made a Logical fallacy in defining Christians.
Logical fallacy - There is No True Scotsman.

No Christian ever thought Jesus was anything but God
The Ebionites did not believe Jesus was God
Ah yes, but no TRUE Christian ever thought Jesus was anything but

The fallacy is in constantly modifying the definition of Christian to exclude anyone that disagrees with the initial premise. There were, in fact, several sizeable groups in the early centuries that considered themselves true Christians and followers of Jesus, but they did not hold to the God-Man concept later developed in Rome.

The Ebionites thought Jesus was just a man that was adopted by God as a special son (he had not been preexistent or part of any Trinity). They were well established by the early 2nd century.

The Marcionites, another sizeable 2nd century group, also considered themselves true Christians and followers of Jesus. They held that the vengeful god of the OT and the loving God of Jesus were 2 separate gods. They emphasizes Pauls "likeness of flesh" in Romans 8:3 to conclude that Jesus was not really a physical human, but a spiritual manifestation of God.

Both the Ebionites and the Marcionites were "labeled" heretical by the powerful church in Rome, but that doesn't mean they weren't Christians, only that they disagreed with the Roman Bishops.

In modern times, there are numerous groups that believe they have the correct understanding of who Jesus is (e.g. Judaism, Islam, JW, Mormons, etc.) and they disagree significantly with Christian fundamentalists.

"...are our..[Pagan beliefs] to be accounted myths and theirs [the Christians'] believed? What reasons do the Christians give for the distinctiveness of their beliefs? In truth, there is nothing at all unusual about what the Christians believe..." Celsus, late 2nd century CE, commenting on the similarities between Pagan and Christian beliefs.

While your opponent may assert that all these notions have been disproved a century ago, assertions are useless. He must present the solid, incontrovertible, evidence or admit the possibility of Christian borrowing from paganism.


Also, Darren sent me this response regarding the question of the past cruelty of Christianity:

In answer to Thomas Paine's question regarding when the cruelty of Christianity became apparent:

Following Constantine's conversion to Christianity.
The section regarding Constantine's conversion is quite revealing. Further down is a section about the new Rome and Constantine's government. Finally, there is this about Theodosius I:

"Theodosius' importance rests on the fact that he founded a dynasty which continued in power until the death of his grandson Theodosius II in 450. This ensured a continuity of policy which saw the emergence of Nicene Christianity as the orthodox belief of the vast majority of Christians throughout the middle ages. It also ensured the essential destruction of paganism and the emergence of Christianity as the religion of the state, even if the individual steps in this process can be difficult to identify. On the negative side, however, he allowed his dynastic interests and ambitions to lead him into two unnecessary and bloody civil wars which severely weakened the empire's ability to defend itself in the face of continued barbarian pressure upon its frontiers. In this manner, he put the interests of his family before those of the wider Roman population and was responsible, in many ways, for the phenomenon to which we now refer as the fall of the western Roman empire."


Thanks for your input!

Monday, January 03, 2005

faith trumps fact

I write about several things that are charged by the issue of faith. And I understand that when someone believes in something "by faith," there is no point in entering into a argument (not a fight) about it because arguments have to do with reason, and religious faith has very little (if anything) to do with reason. A believer can use reason right up until the point where the reason contradicts their faith, and then they will hold to their faith no matter what.

Faith is a tricky word with more than one meaning. (Click here for the definition of faith on If you are not really careful, you can get caught in an argument that goes something like this:

1.Everyone has faith in other people.
2.Even atheists have faith.
3.Therefore it is reasonable to have faith in the teachings of Christianity.

What they don't tell you is that the definitions of "faith" in the premises is different than that in the conclusion. Take a look at that definition of faith from Premises 1 and 2 are associated with definitions 1 and 3, that is, trust and the strong conviction that something is true. On the other hand, the definition of faith that applies to the conclusion, 3, is definition 2. This includes "firm belief in something for which there is no proof."

I notice that there is some overlap in definition, since both trust and belief appears in definition 2. However, when one is talking about religious faith it always has some element of "firm belief in something for which there is no proof." This element is not necessarily found in the case of one person trusting another, or in expressions such as "good faith," which is defined as "honesty or lawfulness of purpose." Or in the faith in the discoveries of science, which depend on proof.

Language is tricky sometimes.

Here are links to some other articles on the subject of faith:
The Skeptic's Dictionary article on faith Article. Interesting take on faith from a Christian apologist

Sunday, January 02, 2005

if i were god . . .

That was the topic of this morning's "Celebration of Life" at First Unitarian. Four people were picked out of the congregation (well in advance) to speak about what they would finish the sentence "If I were God . . ."

There were some interesting answers. One lady started off with the bit about the bable fish in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I have quoted here for your convenience:

"Now it is such a bizarrely improbably coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful [the Babel fish] could have evolved by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this: "I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."
"But," says Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED."
"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
-- Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (book one of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy series), p. 50

(to save typing, I copied this from

Now, as soon as I heard the reference to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I knew this would be good. So, she says that answering the question would be odd for her, since she is not a beliver in God, or gods, or spiritual beings, or anything like that. However, before vanishing in the "puff of logic," she says that she would implant certain things on people's minds, which turn out to be basic humanistic principles like "be good to one another" and "take responsibility for your actions." One of my favorite bits of her speech was when she said that if she were God (who doesn't exist), then when things happened people wouldn't be saying it was "the will of God" or other such nonsense, but that it was poor planning, or the result of someone's action, or bad weather--and then instead of trying to reconcile it with a belief system they would just deal with it and help others deal with it. (This is a very loose paraphrase. I didn't take notes.)

The others gave more theistic answers, but there was something that connected with me in all of them.

Seriously, I love this church. One of the best things about it is that I've finally figured out that I can actually say right out what I believe--all my atheistic, skeptical, naturalistic, pantheistic, rationalistic world view. Right next to some people who love Edgar Cayce and tarrot cards and reincarnation and all that sort of thing, without worries of what people will think. And without the mindset that "you must believe the same as me or your soul is in danger" mentality. This is religious tolerance at it's best!