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Should an Atheist Pray?

Praying personI enjoy polite (or spirited) conversations with Christians. As an out atheist, I’ve attended church small groups and chatted with “Repent or Else!” sign carriers on street corners enough so that I’m rarely surprised by new arguments in favor of God’s existence. Still, the debate keeps me on my toes, and a well-educated Christian can teach me a lot about the church.

When the conversation turns to my atheism, I’m occasionally asked if I’ve ever asked God into my heart. The question never makes sense. Granted, a visitor at my front door ought to wait to be invited in, and perhaps God ought not barge in and force his way into my life. But that’s not the first step. In the case of the visitor at my front door, I have no doubt that that person exists. The Christian always glosses over that first step. Sure, I might ask God into my heart … after I know that he exists.

I don’t ask Osiris, Shiva, Xenu, or Quetzalcoatl to come into my heart (or anywhere else) because I have no reason to believe that they exist and cornucopian reasons to believe that they don’t. The same is true for the Christian god.

But my antagonist persists. “Have you tried it? Just try it. Just ask God into your heart.”

You mean, like, right now? Okay—so I try it. I think: God, if you exist, please make yourself known. And nothing happens.

I’m told that I just wasn’t sincere.

Well, yeah. Of course I wasn’t sincere. I ask God into my heart with the same sincerity as the Christian would ask Odin into their heart. Why would either of us do that with sincerity or enthusiasm?

But what if we dialed it back a bit? Drop the demand for sincerity and just pray. This is the upcoming project of the UK-based Unbelievable radio show and podcast. The instructions for participants are here. In brief:

We are asking each atheist who wishes to take part to pray for 2 to 3 minutes a day for 40 days for God to reveal Himself to them.

I presume the subjects are to go through a test for 40 days to parallel Jesus’s 40 days of trials in the wilderness (40 having the numerological meaning “lots and lots”). The experiment is to run from September 17 through October 26.

But what about that sincerity thing?

The prayer should be kept as open as possible, e.g., rather than “God of Christianity; if you’re out there, turn this water into wine for me”, “God, if you’re out there, reveal yourself to me” would be better.

We only ask that anyone taking part commits themselves to finding a quiet meditative “space” and praying there for two to three minutes each day as earnestly as they can for any God that there might be to reveal himself/herself/itself to him or her, and that he or she remains as open as possible to ways in which that prayer could be answered.

Okay—I’m in. I don’t expect that I’ll be able to be all that earnest—frankly, I don’t have much expectation of anything supernatural happening or even much desire for God to exist—but I’ll have a go. To any Christian who says that I’m not approaching this with much sincerity, you’re right. As I read it, none is required—as it should be. Sincerity comes after the fact; sincerity is earned.

Let’s take a step back to consider this interesting approach to evangelism. It’s different. More typically, a Christian will advance a particular logical argument for God, and I’ll ask if this is what convinced them that God exists.

“Oh no, of course not,” they’ll usually say.

Okay, if it didn’t convince you, why expect that it’ll convince me?

They almost always became a Christian either because they were raised that way or because they had some sort of mystical experience. They give me intellectual arguments because that’s the best they’ve got; they can’t give me the mystical experience. Maybe we have a parallel with a Zen koan—the koan doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s the point. Words are an inept vehicle for conveying the truth of Zen. Are Christian apologetics an inept way of making the case that God exists?

This prayer experiment follows the road less taken. I’ll probably have more to say about walking the walk and whether that’s a reasonable request as I get into the experiment.

Will I do a Leah Libresco? Leah (of the Patheos blog Unequally Yoked) dramatically switched sides, from atheist to Catholic, in June.

No, I don’t think that will happen to me. I don’t read her blog as regularly as I’d like, so I don’t understand her position well, but if I may speculate, I think her personality is such that Christianity appealed to her in a way that it just won’t with me. (And I could be totally wrong in that guess.)

Not only do I think that I won’t convert, I think that that’s impossible. My hypothesis is that atheists like me are stuck in atheism once they get there (I’ve written more here: “I Used to be an Atheist, Just Like You”).

I now have a chance to test that hypothesis.

Taste and see that the LORD is good;
blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.
— Psalms 34:8

Photo credit: Wikimedia

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Richard S. Russell

    Yeah, I read about that challenge, and a couple of things immediately sprang out at me:
      (1) 40 days? Really!? Shouldn’t ONCE do the trick, if there were any truth to it?*
      (2) Don’t be specific, be “open to WHATEVER”? Yeah, like you’d tell your auto-repair shop that the windshield wiper’s stopped working, but you’d be open to having the horn go off constantly as evidence that they’d fixed the problem.
      (3) It’s hard to see how they could screen for sincerity of atheism up front. For all we’d know, there could be entire congregations of Bible-believing Christians who sign up for a chance to report their “conversion” in hopes that reports thereof would sway the faithless. At the very least, we’re dealing with a self-selected sample, presumably heavily weighted toward people who think there’s at least a CHANCE that some kind of gods exist.
      (4) Apparently there’s no attempt to assemble a roster of people who STARTED the test and then following up on each of them to establish solid statistics on how it turned out, but you can bet your bottom dollar there’ll be widespread touting of anecdotes about isolated individuals who “came to Jesus” as a result of this challenge.

    Nonetheless, I’ve sent for their info kit, and if it isn’t TOO outrageous, I’ll give it a shot myself.

    = = = = = =
    *The gullywasher of all empty promises:
    (23) … Verily, verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.
    (24) Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.
      — John 16:23-24

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I agree that once should be enough. Indeed, why am I the one who has to take the first step? God knows that I exist, while he looks identical to the other 10,000 gods that humans have invented.

      I hadn’t thought of Christians stacking the deck. I heard a This American Life story of something similar with a Christian-centric AIDS clinic. They would give you AIDS meds as well as pray for you. The story goes that one woman was diagnosed by them as being HIV+, but they knew that she actually wasn’t. They wanted her to go through the anguish and the side effects from the meds (this was a while ago when the side effects were terrible) so that they could eventually say, “Hey–your HIV test came back negative. You’re cured! It’s a miracle!!”

      I like your empty promises list. Here’s another: “Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.” (Matthew 23:36)

  • avalon

    Hi Bob,
    I applaud you for giving it a shot.
    I initially was suspect about the experiment; thinking it might be about meditative brain states (secular biological). But 2-3 minutes doesn’t seem long enough to bring about brainwave changes. (As you know I’m a non-theist member of a religion that practices silent meditation. I enjoy it greatly without any supernatural assumptions.)
    As for the 40 days, well since it’s only 2-3 minutes a day; that doesn’t seem unreasonable.

    I must say, (after our conversation in the previous blog) I’m happy to see some religious folks starting to focus on the subjective experience of religion. Much more honest than the quasi-science of theism.

    avalon

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I’m all for the secular benefits of religion. Let’s celebrate those and dump the superstition.

    • Gordon

      40 Days of looking for any coincidence that could be interpreted as “god” reaching out? I don’t think the prayer will be responsible for the results. The pattern seeking brain will do that all by itself.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        At the very least, I’ll be more attentive to coincidences. Could be an interesting chance to collect them to see how often anecdote-worthy coincidences arise.

  • Kate

    I did this challenge completely sincerely in my pre-atheism days. I wanted badly to believe, but I also didn’t want to fool myself into thinking I believed when I really didn’t. I prayed every day that God would reveal himself to me. I got absolutely nothing. I know supposedly he’s revealed himself already through the Bible, but that just made me think much less of him, and I wasn’t that impressed by the way he revealed himself in nature, either.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Kate: Good points. I’ve heard similar things–Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God” video, for example.

      And the irony is, people like you describe seriously want God to exist and speak to them. And God doesn’t do so.

      What’s the likelihood that an apathetic atheist like me is going to catch God’s ear?

  • machintelligence

    Just don’t let anyone slip LSD into your orange juice. You could have the experience that Paul Krassner (editor of Realist Magazine) had during the 1960′s. (Not an exact quote) ‘I went on my seventh LSD trip over the weekend. I saw God, otherwise it was nothing.’

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I gotta add that quote to my collection!

  • avalon

    Bob,
    Have you asked yourself what these expect will happen? Doing so would reveal the main differences between you and theists. I submit they assume the following:
    1) They assume God will speak to you through your intuition. That is, they assume (like themselves) that you view intuition as the ‘voice of God’.
    2) They assume you will accept your intuitions as accurate knowledge (like they do). You’re likely to test your intuitions against reason and logic; something they can’t conceive of doing since it’s the ‘voice of God’.
    3) They assume your intuitions will be accompanied by an emotional ‘high’ (ie. asking God into your heart) that will verify your intuitions as correct.

    The atheist reaction to intuition is completely foreign to the theist. Let’s say you do the experiment and some sort of intuition floats up to your conscious mind, I’d guess you’d credit your own subconscious mind for generating those thoughts (no voice of God). Then you’d test those intuitions in the light of logic and reason (you don’t agree they’re accurate knowledge}. Then you’d examine your emotional reaction to those thoughts as subjective feelings irrelevant to the actual facts (not as confirmation of truth). None of this will be apparent to the theist because they start with some very different assumptions. You could pray and get the very same results as a theist but have a very different reaction to them because you don’t share their assumptions.
    If nothing else, I hope the results of this experiment will bring theist assumptions to light.

    avalon

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I have a vague sense of the ecstasy you’d have in jumping to the mindset that God exists and he’s looking out for you. Or the emotional attraction of a Pentecostal (say) service.

      It’s odd reading William Lane Craig’s praise of intuition. He (ineptly) portrays himself a smart scientist, and that’s an foreign notion for a scientist.

      40 days is a while, and I’ll try to give updates through that process. Thanks for the insights.

  • DrewL

    My hypothesis is that atheists like me are stuck in atheism once they get there (I’ve written more here: “I Used to be an Atheist, Just Like You”).
    I now have a chance to test that hypothesis.

    I like how you and Richard think this is a scientific experiment testing a hypothesis. Nearly every condition for a scientific experiment is violated here; atheists who constantly champion science should know that. I guess religious people should be proud of you for “opening” your mind to prayer, but I am fairly certain real scientific experiments (not conducted through blogs) have already demonstrated the “therapeutic” benefits of meditation: there are neurological things that happen through meditation, regardless of the object of these prayers or that object’s realness. The only real “test” you’re performing is whether you can achieve this state of mind and the resulting neurological processes that seems to be scientifically verified. You’re actually putting yourself to the test, not anything supernatural. Good luck with that.

    I’d also encourage you to pray to carrots. This is because the number of religions that promote prayer to a generic non-particularistic deity equals the number of religions that promote prayer to carrots: zero. So why try to reach some cosmic-but-generic being no one actually believes in, when you can just pray to carrots, receive all the neurological benefits, and perhaps have some new insight into the spiritual essence of carrots to share with the world.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      As I read the “experiment,” it has nothing to do with promoting a meditative state of mind and everything to do with the supernatural. If you can see that I’ve misread things, let me know.

      The arguments that apologists most point to are all deist arguments (the design, moral, ontological, first mover, transcendental, etc. arguments). And yet, oddly, these apologists aren’t deists–they’re Christians. So while you worry that this is a prayer to a vague, unspecified deity, these apologists are already completely comfortable with that approach. I don’t think they ought to be (so perhaps we’re on the same page here), but there you go.

      • DrewL

        I’m not saying you’ve misread things; I’m saying the “experiment” is poorly conceptualized. It’d be like Hindus challenging everyone to try vegetarianism for 40 days: at the end we’d all see the scientific well-documented benefits of vegetarianism (perhaps with some of the drawbacks). But only a fool would then be proclaiming something for or against the existence of Hindu gods afterwards.

        I believe most Christian apologists making deist arguments use it as a stepping stone: Christianity itself teaches that “even the demons believe there is one God” so converting people to the demons’ level of belief doesn’t seem to be a very Christian goal. Even Aquinas, who was first to do a lot of those “proofs,” recognized they would only get a person so far.

        I can see you enjoy the pseudo-intellectualism of hypothesis testing your atheism (with a non-scientific experiment), so I don’t want to rain on your parade too much. But this poorly conceptualized “experiment” would be more at home on a creationist blog than a blog constantly championing science.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I believe most Christian apologists making deist arguments use it as a stepping stone

          Well, that’s certainly the goal. That Step 2 of going from deism to Christianity they seem to gloss over.

          I can see you enjoy the pseudo-intellectualism of hypothesis testing your atheism (with a non-scientific experiment)

          I’m simply participating in someone else’s experiment. Whine all you want about it; it’s not my experiment.

          As for testing my atheism, I think my critiques of Christianity in this blog are quite rigorous.

        • DrewL

          I agree with everything you’ve written here. That’s why I think this experiment is beneath you and hope you don’t waste time pining deeply about what you do and don’t discover. But it’s your blog. You apparently take great interest in whether you can achieve the previously-verified therapeutic benefits of prayer, or whether you will fail; I guess we’ll see.

  • GarlicClove

    Quetzalcoatl has other ideas as to what to do with your heart.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      If I get a vague sense of something supernatural, I’ll be sure to consider him as a possible source.

  • Selah

    Hey Bob , God ( the true source), and His son Jesus who says ; ” don’t harden your heart , today is the day of salvation ”. Bob , salvation requires ” repentance ” of your sins and obviously the major sin of unbelief. Don’t put it off !!! . I close with : ” Salvation is not for a sick man who needs a doctor , but a dead man who needs a miracle “. Brian Murray

    • Bob Seidensticker

      “The true source”? Don’t all religions claim that?

      Why is your religion correct and the others false? Aren’t you guilty of hardening your heart against the gods Shiva, Quetzalcoatl, and Xenu? Why is that acceptable?

  • Selah

    Bob , to begin : i hate religion ! what i have is a personal ” relationship ” with the one true God and HIS son Jesus Christ. there are too many false religions out there all claiming the way to eternal life but i believe , as a follower of the Way ( Jesus ) that He is the way , the truth and the life : John 14:6
    i don’ know these other ” gods ” except i”ve heard the name Shiva tossed around . He / she is not a
    ” god ” i would personally want to follow and quite frankly those who do follow are heading for destruction. I will stick with Jesus because i believe what Acts 4 : 12 says; ” no one else can save us. indeed , we can be saved only by the power of the one named Jesus and not by any other person.
    don’t harden your heart Bob !! ” for God so loved the world that he gave his only son to die for us and to those who believe in his son will not perish but have eternal life ” Jesus didn’t come to this world to judge but to save people “. this is one ” born again believer ” who will pray for you as you journey on the way in search of the real truth which can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I agree with you–I wouldn’t follow Shiva. But since we have no use for Shiva, why Jesus? Why is he any different (I mean, aside from the obvious fact that he is the predominant religious meme in this culture)?

      “Ya gotta just believe in the One True Way!” is no argument. Every religion makes that claim; since we know that the others are bunk, why not this one too?

      • Selah

        Bob , why Jesus ? Jesus was either the greatest scam artist that ever walked this earth or He was who He said He was !! The Son of God who died for our / my / your sins and shed His blood as scriptures say : ” without the shedding of blood there is no redemption of sins “. Jesus is the spotless lamb that was crucified on the Cross / rejected by men then and unfortunately by many now in this culture. The sad part of it all is that people think they have to do some thing for their ” salvation ” but Jesus offers it as a free gift to those who will take Him up on it.
        Ephesians 2 : 8 , 9.
        Bob , once again don’t harden your heart !! For your reading pleasure : john 12 :37 -50.
        Jesus is giving a ” shout out ” to you . have a great weekend !

        • Richard S. Russell

          A couple of other possibilities that you may have overlooked:
            (1) Jesus was nuts but charismatic enuf to convince other people he was sincere and really on to something. (No different, really, than Sun Myung Moon or Jim Jones or, heck, Adolf Hitler, or a host of other people who thot they were “special”.)
            (2) Jesus’s followers, disappointed when he didn’t come back on schedule, as he had promised, made up all sorts of stories about him, and nobody else cared enuf at the time to set the record straight.
            (3) Jesus never lived at all, but there were a bunch of legends and tall tales batting around about what the Hebrew messiah would be like, and they started piling up and eventually became a collection — like American folk-hero tales about logger Paul Bunyan, riverman Mike Fink, or railroad guy John Henry — and in those more superstitious woo-woo times, some people eventually started thinking they were history instead of folklore.

          It seems to me that ANY of these possible explanations makes more sense than the one you favor. Why do you think otherwise? What’s wrong with any of them as possible answers to the question “Who was Jesus?”.

        • Selah

          Richard , nice try ! As the great John Macenroe ( not sure I spelled his name right ) often said : “” Can you be serious !!!!!!!! “” . I’ve heard some excuses / explanations ? but those are crazy !! . I can only address the fact that no one knows when Jesus is coming back ! Only His Father ! Some so called Christians have predicted His coming but know one knows when !! All I know is that He is coming back and has a dwelling place for those who believe that He is Lord and Savior of all mankind . I leave you with this from Romans 1 : 20-22. I think you fit right in with this crowd but someday I hope you can have a conversion like the Apostle Paul who went from persecuting Christians to preaching the wonderful Good News of Jesus Christ !.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Richard: Yes, all good options. The plausible natural explanation always trumps the supernatural one.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Selah:

          I’ve heard some excuses / explanations ? but those are crazy !!

          Don’t like Richard’s options? Then explain them away.

          Blustering, “Those ideas are crazy!!!!!” simply suggests that you have no rebuttals.

        • Richard S. Russell

          Selah writes: “Richard , nice try !”

          I think it was more than a try. I think I pointed out 3 hypotheses that you failed to even consider. You DIDN’T consider them, did you?

          “As the great John Macenroe ( not sure I spelled his name right ) often said : “” Can you be serious !!!!!!!! “” .”

          In fact, you did not spell his name right. It’s McEnroe, as anyone with even a passing regard for the truth could easily have taken the time to confirm before flaunting his ignorance. Also, his signature phrase (also easily confirmable) is “You canNOT be serious.” Also, I’m sure he knew where to put the quotations marks.

          “I’ve heard some excuses / explanations ? but those are crazy !! .”

          This from someone who FAVORS an explanation that says somebody was killed but returned to life a day and a half later. Why, prithee, is that explanation BETTER than one that obviously happens all the time, like the charlatans I quoted who nonetheless drew fervent followers? We KNOW that that sort of stuff happens, becuase we’ve SEEN it happening in our lifetimes. Why, then, do you think of it as “crazy”? What MAKES it “crazy”? More to the point, what makes it crazier than the hypothesis YOU prefer?

          Similarly, we KNOW that people have invented folk tales like those surrounding Paul Bunyan. We also know that they were doing the same thing thousands of years ago with guys like Perseus and Hercules. We KNOW that this sort of mytholigization happens. Why is it “crazy” to think that it might well have happened in the case of Jesus? And, again, why is it CRAZIER to believe that than your own preferred ’twas-a-miracle “explanation”?

          “I can only address the fact that no one knows when Jesus is coming back !”

          Gotta call you on that one, Selah. At least one person knew, and he wasn’t bashful about it, either. You may have heard of him. Old Hebrew philanthropist and philosopher, J. Christ:

          “(27) For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.
          “(28) Assuredly I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” —Matthew 16:27-28 (Jesus speaking, c. 33 CE)

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Selah:

          Jesus offers it as a free gift to those who will take Him up on it.

          Oh? It’s not a gift available to me. I can’t “just believe” in Jesus, just like you can’t “just believe” in leprechauns.

  • avalon

    Hi Bob,
    Still praying? Heard anything yet? I’ll bet you haven’t. And it’s all because you don’t know about:
    the “4 Keys to Hearing God’s Voice”.

    (Note: the following is an actual quote from a serious christian website! It is NOT from a late-night TV commercial.)

    “Are you interested in a simple, consistent, easily teachable method for hearing the voice of God on a daily basis?”
    (That’s each and every day, Bob!)
    “You are invited to listen in as Rev. Mark Virkler, Ph.D., president of CLU, offers an insightful and entertaining introduction to the method he has been teaching worldwide for the last 20 years. This method will allow anyone (yes, even you!) to quickly develop a conversational relationship with Jesus Christ. ”

    (Yes, even you, Bob! And we’re not talking about one of those flimsy ‘Jesus-loves-me’ relationships. No indeed, we’re teaching you how to have actual CONVERSATIONS!)
    Do it now, Bob while the experiment is still ongoing.
    Click here:
    http://www.cluonline.com/godsvoice.htm

    avalon

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Uh, thanks. I think …

  • Tim

    Bob, doesn’t Libresco herself falsify your hypothesis? I mean, she appears to be a pretty well-informed person – loves science, rationality, all that – who has converted. Surely she belongs in your Group 3?

    I know Dan Finke has criticized her for not being knowledgeable enough about atheism, so you could make the case that she belongs in your Group 2. But isn’t that the No True Scotsman fallacy?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      No True Scotsman is definitely a pitfall that I must avoid. It’s tempting to simply dismiss any possible counterexample as not actually a serious atheist.

      Seems to me that this legendary real-atheist-turned-Christian would give very different, quite compelling arguments rather than the same old stuff. As with most bloggers, I haven’t read much of Leah’s stuff. So far, I’m impressed with the breadth of her interests, but I haven’t read anything apologetics-related from her that makes me doubt my hypothesis.

  • smrnda

    I didn’t follow Leah Libresco’s blog that much, but she sounds like a few people that I knew who converted later in life, several after entering into long-term relationships with religious people. It wasn’t so much a rational choice that the beliefs were better but more a kind of emotional “I feel bad that these people who I care about know I think their beliefs are absurd. I’m going to be nice and go to their church and bow my head because it’s the nice thing to do. ” It requires a lot of cognitive dissonance management on the part of the convert, but it tends to be more for personal reasons. Perhaps a good comparison would be a person who was a left-wing socialist in college getting a job in HR at a factory and then fighting against workers starting a union, and then gradually starting to echo every right-wing pro deregulated market talking point.

    Also, on the *personal relationship* deal with God – I lived half a mile from my grandparents growing up and say them several times a month, and I didn’t consider that a personal relationship given that we were never close and the generation gap made it tough for us to have any real common ground. So when I hear people promoting the idea of a personal relationship with God being possible, what I see them offering and what I see them having doesn’t fit the bill. It’s like someone trying to sell me a computer and then pulling out an abacus and telling me that it is a computer, in a sense.

    • http://richardsrussell.livejournal.com/128569.html Richard S. Russell

      I blogged about that “deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ” here:
         http://richardsrussell.livejournal.com/128569.html
      Perhaps needless to say, I found it to be a bit exaggerated.

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  • http://fernandapowers.com Fernanda

    I want to thank you for posting this article, and for giving prayer an honest try for forty days. I came across this article because a Catholic blogger I follow, Mark Shea, referenced your prayer experiment in one of his posts. I followed his link back to your “day one” post and then your link back to this article. I thought this article was well written so I decided to share it on Facebook, and here’s where it gets interesting. At the beginning of the summer I’d learned about a really cool class on Catholic evangelism being offered in my diocese. At that time, October seemed *so far away!* Meanwhile, the position of Director of Religious Education quite unexpectedly (to me, anyway) opened up. I applied and got the position. About a week ago I was recruiting catechism teachers and pulling registrations together and all that fun administrative stuff. I was also keeping my eyes open for training opportunities for myself and the catechism teachers in my program. The same day I posted your article, the first comment I get is from the author of the evangelism class I’d been interested in at the beginning of the summer. Her comment led to a nice conversation in which she told me when her class was starting again, and we also connected as friends who have a fair amount in common. I pitched the class to my catechism teachers, they all decided to take it, my church found a way to cover the cost of enrolling in the class. In the end, not only will I be taking the class but 100% of the catechism teachers in my program will be participating, which is actually a remarkable feat (considering how busy people are nowadays–yes, even church people!). Your article played a role in getting all that going, so I’m truly grateful that you posted it and that I found it. I don’t know if you are yet “experiencing” any particular way in which God is working *in* your life, but I can tell you that God is already working *through* your life, and my life has already been touched. So please keep up your experiment and don’t give up even if it seems silly and like it doesn’t make a difference. You never know the impact you will have on other souls just when you open up your heart to the Holy Spirit, even if just a crack. THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart!

    • Bob Seidensticker

      a Catholic blogger I follow, Mark Shea, referenced your prayer experiment in one of his posts

      Thanks for your interest. I don’t think Mark shares it!

      Your article played a role in getting all that going, so I’m truly grateful that you posted it and that I found it.

      An interesting bit of serendipity! Thanks for sharing. I’m glad that things are working out for you. Good luck in the new position.

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  • Cole Van Horn

    Man, you are right. I buy into pretty much everything you said here. I wouldn’t ever expect you to go into something you disagree with, and no one should. That’d be crazy.

    Apologetics, as I think we all have experienced, are not ever going to sway anyone. It is that emotional/mystical experience that moves people to convert. Always has been, and I would suppose always will be. Mostly, I think, because people who practice apologetics for both sides are far too easily flustered and are want to get red-faced and stray from rational discussion into mudslinging and fighting.

    In that regard I would like to thank you for your even-keeled tone. I think there are few out there on either side who don’t berate the other from the start of their dialogue, and I would like to thank you for keeping cool with some of the others who commented on here. I appreciate it, and enjoyed reading your blog.

    I know it doesn’t hold any water with you, but I do hope that your experiment goes well in whatever shape “well” takes, and that the God that I believe in actually does speak to you in some way all his own. I will be praying for you for what it’s worth.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Cole:

      Christians seem to want to argue apologetics (if they’re of a mind) and hope that it has an impact, but they seem immune to intellectual responses. It’s like a snake that’s immune to its own venom.

      On the topic of tone, I had a long chat just today with a Catholic. The bad news is that he was unimpressed with my arguments, simply accepting them as data without using them to critique his position (as far as I could tell). But the good news was that he was a very mellow conversation partner. We had a pleasant conversation. It was a great reminder that politeness counts.

      Thanks for your input. I hope you stick around.

      • Cole Van Horn

        Friend I’m afraid that’s what you will run into most with us Christians. We aren’t a flexible lot for the most part.

        See, for the most part our faith is like a brick wall, and each brick of our “knowledge” is crucial to our faith. If you take out a brick, the whole wall loses structural integrity, and it crumbles. My mom and grandma are prime examples… I’ve had discussions with them where I proved through different scriptures falsehoods that they had believed beyond a shadow of a doubt, yet they still couldn’t bring themselves to accept they were flat out wrong according to the Bible itself.

        That is what I think you and myself both run into on both sides… Inflexibility, both from Christians and atheists. That’s the main reason the two sides can’t agree, and I think it all stems from a non-understanding of the other side, not caring about their point of view, and a general animosity from the outset. It will take us remedying these three for things to ever get better, and both sides are to blame.

        Would you agree?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Sounds like a laudable approach, but I don’t expect quick progress from it. I think demographic trends might make quicker change.

        • Cole Van Horn

          In what respects?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Old Christians dying; young kids not embracing Christianity as much.

        • Cole Van Horn

          I would agree with the first part for sure.

          On the second though, as a guy in ministry myself, I can’t say they don’t need to embrace it as much, but rather a different type.

          What I mean is this: I was raised in that conservative, backwoods, small town, restrictive, legalistic church environment. I lived that life until I made it to college and found the faith I have today. It’s a much greater faith, but it’s obviously more freeing and able to dialogue than that other. I have faith in Jesus, yet I can talk to you without blowing my top.

          So, rather than people just not embracing faith, maybe a different type of faith? The more open to dialogue, cool headed type? I mean, I realize you want everyone to abandon faith all together (I hope I’m not putting words in your mouth) just as I would want everyone on Earth to feel what I feel and be just in love with Jesus as I am, but let’s be real here: neither of those things are going to happen. So alternatively, wouldn’t a change in the dynamic of the conversation itself be more of a realistic goal?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Cole:

          Christianity 2.0 is what I want. But sure, an improved climate for conversation would be an improvement.

        • Cole Van Horn

          I read your Christianity 2.0, and it made me think. I see what you want us to move towards, but I really don’t think that what you posed could carry the name Christianity. What you are posing seems to be more like a non-profit or community center type scenario. The good values of life are praised, there is tight community, and music and fun, but really there is no mention of Christ himself. Sure, you throw in a few Bible stories extolling the virtues of good men and women, but you ignore the central idea of the entire book.

          Let me say that I like the concept itself; the propping up of virtue and community and love, and everything you mentioned are aspects of the Christian community that I love, but if you deny the supernatural origin of Christianity, you are denying the basic tenants of the movement itself, and I don’t think constitutes a Jesus Movement at all. It’s not much different than a virtue ethics club in that case.

          I think the a lot of the parts you see as bad are the human folly aspect. The religious fanaticism, bigotry, and murder in the name of a deity? That is not what my God asks of me.

          Once again, I love your concept for sure, but for me that is all contained within the Christian community as it stands today, given that it is practiced with love and harmony in your heart rather than selfishness.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Cole:

          What you are posing seems to be more like a non-profit or community center type scenario.

          The Christian tradition is the difference–the scholars of the past, the parables, the longevity, and all that.

          there is no mention of Christ himself

          Christians can read about Buddha himself and get value out of the tale. Why can’t nonreligious folk get value out of stories about Jesus?

          you ignore the central idea of the entire book.

          If you mean the supernatural part, yes, to some extent.

          But to be clear, the big change I’m imagining is where atheists could come to church and be welcomed as “cultural Christians.” Believing Christians would be there as well.

          As it is now, atheists are welcome to come and kick the tires, but they’re provisional members, not full members. Membership as believers is the covert goal (from the standpoint of the congregation) of their visit.

        • Cole Van Horn

          “The Christian tradition is the difference–the scholars of the past, the parables, the longevity, and all that.”

          So would you propose a new interpretation of scripture and these select biblical stories that you would teach, just a complete doing away of the old ways?

          “Christians can read about Buddha himself and get value out of the tale. Why can’t nonreligious folk get value out of stories about Jesus?”

          They absolutely can, and I hope that they do, because regardless of where you stand on his divinity he is an incredible moral teacher. I get things from Buddha, and am in the process of reading the Qoran now, and there’s plenty to glean from that you are correct. I think my problem arises from the whole picking and choosing of what is ok and what isn’t. Christian folk do is so often and it annoys me when they do it.

          What I would see developing here is that scenario where someone part of a story is taken as good, but the punchline is bad… Just a random text is Jesus’ teaching on worrying. He tells us not to worry, that it won’t help our situations, and that we cannot change anything by worrying. I think we’d agree that this is good, solid teaching. But then he brings God into it saying that God will care for you like he does the birds and flowers if you only look for him. Which by Christianity 2.0′s definition is not good.

          My point is that we would be drawing lines in the sand between what we like and what we don’t, which is among the many valid complaints levied against Christians already. Does any of that make sense?

          “If you mean the supernatural part, yes, to some extent. But to be clear, the big change I’m imagining is where atheists could come to church and be welcomed as “cultural Christians.” Believing Christians would be there as well. As it is now, atheists are welcome to come and kick the tires, but they’re provisional members, not full members. Membership as believers is the covert goal (from the standpoint of the congregation) of their visit.”

          Brother, you could come to the church of Cole and be accepted right away just because you’re a people, fully able to participate in everything that I do. That being said, I know where you’re coming from. I’m fairly progressive according to a lot of Christians I know, and I’m not considered a full member. Membership annoys me in the first place. It’s point blank exclusionary which is the exact opposite of the whole message of Jesus, but that’s another rant for another time.

          I cannot lie and say that my hope would be for you to be a fully believing member in the sense you’re thinking of, but I feel like that’s between you and God. I would be there to answer questions and give advice, but I am not the type to push someone into a commitment they don’t want. As I’ve stated before, one of my favorite parts of the church atmosphere is just hanging out and loving people regardless of where they are at. I would not treat you any different than I would a Christian friend.
          That being said, not all Christians are like that…

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Cole:

          I think my problem arises from the whole picking and choosing of what is ok and what isn’t. Christian folk do is so often and it annoys me when they do it.

          There you go! This imaginary Christianity 2.0 would be a new take on things, but it would only be the zillionth time this has happened. Changing the immutable word of God is a Christian tradition.

          My point is that we would be drawing lines in the sand between what we like and what we don’t, which is among the many valid complaints levied against Christians already. Does any of that make sense?

          Christians hammer the gospel story to take the shape of their faith all the time. This would be equally flawed but equally acceptable.

  • http://www.bigbluewave.ca SUZANNE

    Are you ready to accept the consequence of finding God? Are you ready to surrender to his will? Are you willing to live as if he is your all?

    If God, as an idea or a person is not worth pursuing to you, he’s not going to waste his time. You can’t just pray in a formal manner. You have to pray like you really mean it and you WANT God in your life. And not to prove a hypothesis, but in order to discover and live and new way of life.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Suzanne: Interesting questions.

      The first step is to find overwhelming evidence that he exists. Then I’ll worry about surrendering to him.

      I dunno, though. The god of the Old Testament is a pretty savage SOB. He may be worth following just because of the nasty consequences of not doing so, but following him with joy sounds like a stretch. But let’s worry about that first step first.

      You have to pray like you really mean it and you WANT God in your life.

      And I can’t do that, just like you would have a hard time praying to Shiva or Xenu like you mean it and like you want them in your life. Anyway, that’s not what the experiment asks for.

  • Pingback: The Atheist Prayer | CatInfor.com

  • Caroline Reid

    Bob,

    your willingness to give prayer a try is wonderful, as is your even-keeled approach to the whole issue of faith. Yeah, faith is something you cannot pretend. A person either has faith, or not. But there is a journey of inquiry or seeking that can lead to the place of faith. It sounds like you are somewhere in that journey. How’s the road? Bumpy? Smooth? Any companions on the road? What are you learning about prayer? About God?

    Like Cole, I’m praying that you will meet Him!

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Caroline: Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

      I’ll keep posting updates throughout the process. Come back every now and then to see what’s new. Or sign up to get email notifications. Thanks for your interest!

  • Arkenaten

    If all the prayers of all Jews?Christians?Muslims in all the world in all the time ( since the character of Yahweh was conceived/revealed) has produced diddlly-squat, (irrespective of undocumented and unsubstantiated claims to the contrary) then chances are God must have a hearing problem (or his hearing aid needs new batteries). It’s the only logical answer.
    “Speak up!”
    PS Could you ask for new strings for my Fender Strat,?

    • Arkenaten

      Don’t know what the ? marks are about. Typos probably.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        ? = shift-/

    • Bob Seidensticker

      If I get God on the line, I’ll try to remember about your Fender.

  • R.C.

    Bob:

    I think it’s great that you’re examining Christianity with a sincere attempt at clear vision.

    I feel some concern, though, that you might be approaching part of the topic from a bad footing; and that this may disadvantage your overall approach later on.

    You say, “I don’t ask Osiris, Shiva, Xenu, or Quetzalcoatl to come into my heart (or anywhere else) because I have no reason to believe that they exist and cornucopian reasons to believe that they don’t. The same is true for the Christian god.”

    Okay, got it, I see what you mean by that. But…are you emotionally, at a gut level, aware of how “Osiris, Shiva, Xenu, or Quetzalcoatl” fall (or should fall) into a categorically different mode of thinking than “the Christian god?” Do you yet feel the disconnect? I’m not talking about considering one of them real and the others unreal; I’m talking about “one of these things is not like the others” in a categorical way. The pagan gods are intrinsically created beings or at least emergent beings; but whenever (as in Socrates and Plato and Aristotle) a person in a pagan society understands the Judeo-Christian concept of God, there immediately follows the conclusion that “the gods” must be, if emergent phenomena, then emergent from some set of rules that that God set in motion; or, if created, then created by that God.

    I don’t mean to say that little kids don’t envision God as a sort of man in the sky. Naturally they do, by virtue of being little kids, and also because adults simplify explanations given to children. (Sometimes excessively.) But since you’re a grown-up and someone with a good strong intellect and a lot of curiosity I expect you’ll prefer to approach God, if you do, on a level commensurate with your own ability to think. That means dealing with theologians and saints, mystics and “doctors of the Church”, not with third-grade Sunday School teachers, however kind and well-intentioned.

    I mean, when an expert in quantum mechanics thinks about the structure of an atom, he doesn’t envision electrons being in “orbit” around the nucleus even though, as a child, he may have had precisely that view. Or, if he does, he does so while knowing it’s incorrect, and while knowing that when the occasion calls for it, he can force his mind into a non-deterministic mode of thinking wherein he envisions a sort of cloud of uncertainty around the proximity of electrons to the nucleus.

    So too, here. The problem is that we really ought not to use the same word “God” for God as we do for a “god” along the Zeus/Osiris model. One reason is that the notion of more than one (as a matter of identity, though not, interestingly, of personhood, in the ancient sense) is nonsensical for the former category of entity, and yet is perfectly reasonable for the latter category. But the most important reason is that of integration into the overall system. “God” isn’t; “gods” are. “God” is meta.

    This is not intended as a defense of the existence of God; it’s just an attempt to make sure that one sees the terminology clearly. For a Christian who’s an intelligent adult and who has done the reading and thought seriously about the matter, saying, “Osiris, Shiva, Xenu, Quetzalcoatl, God” feels a lot less like a Tolkien fan saying, “Sam, Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Elbereth” and more like saying “Sam, Frodo, Merry, Pippin, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.” For the science-geek, I suppose it’s less like saying “Celestial Spheres, Kepler’s Nested Solids, Epicycles, General Relativity” and more like a science-geek saying “E.T., Ford Prefect, Reticulans, Emperor Ming, General Relativity.” It’s not just that the science-geek thinks the earlier-enumerated items are fictional and General Relativity factual; it’s that he thinks the earlier-enumerated items, even if they did exist, would be more like characters in the book, and the last item in the list would be the ink the book was printed in, or the imagination of the author, upon which the characters depended for existence.

    That last is more accurate because, to the extent that “gods” in the pagan sense are claimed to exist (rather than being poetical expressions of mystery and beauty in nature), they emerge from some primordial chaos and occupy definitive roles with definitive limitations. Their existence is dependent on some prior reality.

    But what a (serious, intelligent, mature, well-read) Christian means by “God” is very different from that. He would start with the Creed (“I believe in God…creator of heaven and earth.”): God created everything; He is the source of all existence. In this view nothing exists except by borrowing the property of existence from Him as a temporary loan, or conditional gift, or derivative work, depending on whether you’re discussing the material, the rational, or the spiritual.

    To give some notion of what I mean: If our physical existence is dependent on, say, the laws of quantum mechanics, then the laws of quantum mechanics can be viewed as being dependent on God continually keeping those laws fixed in His mind with the intent of continually offering them the gift of reality. If He ceases doing that, those laws cease to be true, and physical realities collapse into nothingness. If He ceases to offer His intrinsic rationality to the laws of mathematics, they collapse and 1 ceases to be 1. If He ceases to offer individual persons a tap into the wellspring of His own free creativity, the concept of free will and choice ceases to exist even as a concept applied to created beings, let alone a reality. “Reality” as a concept is His, He loans it out to other things and thereby enables them, both initially and continually, to have some semblance of reality, however ephemeral. But He is the concrete thing.

    (The preceding is intended to give a notion, a gut-level sense of the outsideness of God; I didn’t intend the preceding paragraph to be rigorously philosophically accurate and unambiguous. Don’t get immediately caught up in objections or clarifications; just get the vibe of what I mean by “outsideness.”)

    Aquinas put it this way: His essence is His existence. (But that’s not very helpful to the modern English speaker unless he goes and reads Feser’s introductory book on Aquinas, and then maybe Etienne Gilson, and finally a good long stretch of Aquinas’ actual writing, so as to learn how Aquinas uses such terms as essence, existence, accident, substance, and “being,” or Ens.)

    Thus the evidence against the existence of the Judeo Christian God is very different, by nature, than the evidence against the existence of some space-alien kind of deity such as exists in the Norse and Greek legends. Saying that Thor doesn’t exist falls under the same heading of argument as saying that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist; it’s more an exercise in cryptozoology than in theology. But if you understand what is meant by the word “God” in the Judeo Christian context (and incidentally, what a shame that we don’t have an entirely different word for such a radically different concept!) you see that, whether or not God exists in actuality, an argument to state that He doesn’t exist must fall in the category of stating that A is not A, or of denying the principle of non-contradiction; it will necessarily be an exercise in philosophy. (I heard a story, probably apocryphal, of some Soviet cosmonaut who returned from space and stated that he had not seen God in space. The real scandal, from a Christian perspective, would have been if he had.)

    Now in fact, what Christians mean by God is something very hard to grasp all at once. “Both entirely transcendent and entirely immanent” is the phrase, and that’s difficult enough. But I think there is an iterative approach that can allow us to take our initial conception of what Christians and Jews mean by “God,” which often is rather close to the pagan cryptozoological notion, and work our way outwards in the direction of the right idea. It certainly will not get us all the way there, but if we trace the overall vector of motion by connecting the dots between our positions at different iterations, we trace a line that points in the right direction.

    When I say, “work our way outwards,” I mean, we want to get progressively increasingly “meta.” You can read, if you’re a Tolkien fan, about Sam and Frodo meeting Galadriel and appreciate that this is a powerful event for them, and imagine that it would be rather more powerful for them to meet Varda/Elbereth, but realize that for them to meet J.R.R.Tolkien would fall in an entirely different category. Tolkien is outside the whole scheme; he’s “meta.” He’s one step — a very big step — “outside.” Now, for God, you have to go an infinite number of steps further, while still saying, after each step, “yet still entirely immanent” so that your increasingly accurate measure of meta-ness doesn’t take a toll on your sense of spatial and temporal omnipresence.

    So let’s start with some miracles: Take for example the “fire from heaven” that conveniently burned up Elijah’s altar during the showdown with the priests of Ba’al atop Mt. Carmel. Suppose you’re there, with a materialist philosophy, and you actually see it happen: What do you conclude? It looks like a meteoroid strike, so you say, “Easy. Meteoroid; though if any fragments are left I’d say meteorite. Nothing supernatural here.” And your Christian friend says, “Well, of course it was a meteoroid. God likes them; He invented them; and every now and again He likes to do something flashy with them.” To which you’d reasonably reply, “What? God just said, ‘Let There Be Meteoroid’ somewhere a mile up, and it was so?” And he replies, “Why a mile? Why not the edge of the solar system half a million years ago? Or halfway across the galactic arm, several billion years ago? For that matter, why not in the Big Bang?” For of course the point is that your Christian friend sees the Big Bang, and the design of whatever physical laws made it possible, and the design of the mathematical/philosophical realities that make physical laws sensible and intelligible, to all be supernatural.

    Or to put the same thing another way, if God creates matter out of nothing, then once it is created, it is matter. It reflects light, and if you drop it in a pool, it makes ripples. And just as when you drop a rock in a pool, once under the water it takes on the green shadowy hue of everything else on the bottom of the pool, when God drops a miracle into the physical world, it takes on the character of all the rest of creation and participates in the dance of cause-and-effect like a child adopted into a large and happy crowd of siblings.

    There is, in a way, no getting away from God if one happens to live in a physical universe; there is only the question of whether an unlikely-seeming event is in God’s character or not.

    Seen that way, it’s an answer to the Intelligent Design folks who envision God nudging evolution every now and again with microscopic miracles. It turns out this view is entirely unnecessary; if He were such a micromanager, He could just as easily wiped time off the whiteboard and tried it again several times until He got precisely the Big Bang that’d lead to precisely the evolution He wanted. (Bing! We just went one iteration more “meta” in our view of God.)

    And that’s wrong because it depicts God having to wait to see what any given iteration of the Big Bang would produce before knowing whether He’d have to restart it and try another; in the Christian view, He’s seeing all times as Now and is instantaneously experiencing both how He’s Banging the Bang and what its final outcome is. So then you have to rewrite your mental picture (Bing! One step yet more “meta”) to put Him as a master billiards player, striking the cueball just right with His first and only cue-stroke so that every ball sinks in precisely the right order, from the beginning of time to its end, and knowing all along exactly how it’ll turn out because He’s experiencing the whole unraveling of time all at once.

    And that’s just the way I’d talk about it if I thought determinism was true, which I don’t. If you want to account for quantum weirdness, then think about that bit where Einstein wanted to insist that “God does not play dice with the universe,” and that answering bit from Hawking where he says something like, “Actually it seems that God does play dice with the universe, and sometimes He throws the dice in places where we can’t see them.” Picture Him as knowing exactly how improbable it is for Philip to teleport from the Road to Gaza all the way to Azotus after his visit with the Ethiopian, and calculating, like Zaphod twiddling dangerously with the Infinite Improbability Drive, just how Improbable a simultaneous jump of so many zillion quanta would be. He plays dice, except that when He wants to, He weights them.

    Except that that, once again, (Bing!) this is an incorrect picture, for a whole lot of reasons. Closer to the truth might be that he designed the probabilistic behaviors of those particular quanta to include that unusual behavior from the beginning: Philip Teleporting isn’t a miracle so much as a law of the universe.

    And again, all of that is not a theory. All of that is a step in the right direction, to show how very, very “meta” you have to be, in order to look at God as a creative artist and the universe as His handiwork in an orthodox way.

    And, again, I’m not making an apologetic for the existence of God in all of this. I am only trying to have you, as it were, in the right “mood” when attempting a prayer to God. It ought to be a mood in which created objects like Zeus, Thor, Osiris, E.T., Lord Kinbote, Emperor Ming, and the like don’t come up: They belong to a different universe of topics. When turning one’s attention to God, in the Judeo-Christian sense, one must look in another direction.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      RC:

      Whoa. That’s gotta be the longest comment ever! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      But…are you emotionally, at a gut level, aware of how “Osiris, Shiva, Xenu, or Quetzalcoatl” fall (or should fall) into a categorically different mode of thinking than “the Christian god?”

      No. I see differences, of course, but it’s like differences between different kinds of vegetables. They’re still all vegetables.

      The Christian god doesn’t get a pass. And the only difference that I really care about is an evidential one. If Yahweh is different because there’s great evidence to show that he actually exists while the others lack this evidence, then that’s something worth talking about.

      This is not intended as a defense of the existence of God; it’s just an attempt to make sure that one sees the terminology clearly.

      I’m still not sure why this isn’t misdirection. We could go on for a long time talking about what makes Yahweh belief unique, but I only care about reasons to believe.

      I wonder what the Roman pantheon would look like if it was still believed in today. My guess is that you’d have believers like you who are well-steeped in modern science and will have modified their religion to fit with modern science just like Christians have theirs. They’ll go on (like you have) about logic, mathematics, relativity, and quantum physics and how those underlying laws are firmly grounded in the existence of their (new ‘n improved!) pantheon–quite unlike the primitive Teutonic or Norse pantheons, for example.

      Take for example the “fire from heaven” that conveniently burned up Elijah’s altar during the showdown with the priests of Ba’al atop Mt. Carmel.

      It’s a story. What’s to explain?

      in the Christian view, He’s seeing all times as Now and is instantaneously experiencing both how He’s Banging the Bang and what its final outcome is.

      As an aside, where does this come from? Do you find strong footing for this statement in the Bible, or did theologians just invent it as they went along?

      And again, all of that is not a theory. All of that is a step in the right direction, to show how very, very “meta” you have to be, in order to look at God as a creative artist and the universe as His handiwork in an orthodox way.

      An interesting essay. But why should I accept your theology?

      I am only trying to have you, as it were, in the right “mood” when attempting a prayer to God.

      Thanks for the thought, but I’m not praying to God. It’s more like a shout into the cosmos, “Hello–is anyone there?” and listening for any response. That is, the experiment is deliberately not biased toward Christianity.

      • R.C.

        Bob:

        Thanks for your reply.

        About one of your statements, “The Christian god doesn’t get a pass,” and in association with that, “I’m still not sure why this isn’t misdirection,” I suppose all I can do is assert that, no, honest-and-for-true, I’m really not intending to misdirect you; and, again, I have no intention of requesting that you give the God of Christianity any kind of “pass.” He doesn’t need it; supposing Him to exist, it follows that He can stick up for Himself!

        So I do not in any way expect you to make exceptions for the Christian belief in the sense of singling it out for greater credulity. I don’t want you to treat it differently except insofar as it is actually substantially different. But there are ways that it is substantially different, and your phrasing re: Osiris, etc., suggested that you didn’t have a good appreciation of that fact. And, since you were thinking and writing about the topic, I thought it best to offer warning for accuracy’s sake and because I think that inaccuracy at the outset would cause you to think/say/do inaccurate things later on.

        It seems to me that you’re challenging whether there is (a.) any real categorical difference between the Judeo-Christian “First Cause” God and the pagan deities as represented in paganism, and (b.) whether, supposing that there is any real difference, is it a difference which existed from the outset, or one which was retrofitted after advances in physical science had made earlier formulations unsustainable…recently enough, in other words, that one won’t be able to find it supported in the sources which document the earliest forms of the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially the Bible.

        In response to both (a.) and (b.) I wish to point out Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” And, in the Exodus, the name given by God to Moses was, “I AM”; this is a peculiar formation or usage of the verb “to be” (at least when used as a name!) which is taken to mean something like: “I am, I always was, and I always will be.” It seems also somewhat recursive: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” It is re-echoed in the angelic praises given to God in prophetic visions: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who Was and Is and Is To Come.” You have to understand: All of this is asserting more than immortality, in the sense of an infinite succession of years or a body unable to be injured through sheer toughness or healing power. It is rather asserting the idea of a God outside time, who did things “before” there was time, who will still exist if time ceases to exist.

        And, whereas creation myths in most cultures tend to depict the “gods” coming from earlier gods or emerging from chaos in some divine version of a primordial soup or starting out in “the heavens” which apparently predate them, this God created the “heavens” (a pretty bold assertion in the ancient sensibility) and, stuck on at the end of the same sentence, the earth, and went on to make the sun and moon and stars (often deities themselves in other pantheons) after the fashion of a homebuilder installing light fixtures in a house.

        So, yes, this view is intrinsic to Judaism and Christianity, it is there from the earliest sources, and while there is a distinction between how it is phrased in the “oral Torah” of the sayings of the Jewish sages which came to be written down later and how it is phrased by St. Thomas Aquinas, that distinction is one of terminological development, but not of reversal. Aquinas took Aristotle’s approach to philosophy (essence, existence, substance, accidents, movement from potentiality to actuality) and applied it in order to state notions about God more rigorously than had perhaps previously been possible, but in a fashion utterly in continuity with the tradition. The Judeo-Christian God, from His earliest days, is an Unmoved First Mover.

        Now, as for whether the pagans would have begun to alter their theology eventually, the answer is: They did! Once the Judeo-Christian God began to be talked about in the years 100-400, the “Neo-Platonists” arose in response, saying, “Oh, so you have a god which is mystically outside and independent from the universe, and which claims to be both the creator and the source of the moral law? Okay, so do we!” And Gnostics either borrowed names from ancient gods (as in Valentinus’ reapportioning of Old Kingdom Egyptian deities for his Ogdoad) or simply made up their own new exotic-sounding names (as lampooned by Irenaeus, who thought they’d have done better with names like Melon and Cucumber) in order to construct variations on the Trinity.

        But this all seems in the manner of response. In earlier paganism, there’s a sharp divide between the philosophers who debated about what is good and how life ought to be lived and what the nature of reality was, and those who personalized forces of nature in order that men could make offerings and have something before which to bow. The combining of the two is what produces a “theology,” in the sense of a rigorous attempt to know the truth about what is righteous and what is real, and to rule out errors. The pagans basically didn’t have that in the Judeo-Christian sense; the philosophers ignored the gods and the poetical stories about them and the priests ignored the discussion of Stoicism and Epicurianism.

        But that is an aside. To return to Christianity…

        If you are American, you must remember that American Christianity is an odd beast, an outlier, due to certain quirks of history. If you measure Christianity by looking at the larger mainline denominations, American popular Evangelicalism and some pop-culture caricatures of Fundamentalists detached from their context, you’ll wind examining Christianity through a lens almost entirely divorced from Christianity’s history, and from its Hebraic origins. This can cause large errors.

        For example, I expect you view Christians like me, who take the Genesis creation story to be a poetical narrative intended to convey certain truths in an allegorical fashion rather than a chronology to be taken literalistically, to have “adapted to keep up with science.”

        But that isn’t my perspective at all. My concern with the Genesis creation story is, “What kind of literary genre was this intended to be, and how would that genre be viewed by its earliest readers…or, more realistically, how would it be heard by its earliest hearers, in the centuries before it was put to paper?” Seen from that perspective, the evidence is strong — it is littered all over the text — that this is poetical and highly allegorical narrative, intended to convey the meaning of real events, but in a manner unconcerned with what we moderns would call their “actual details.” The ancients of that era would almost certainly be shocked at the kinds of questions being posed to the text; they’d be astounded at how we’d managed to miss the whole point.

        And this is an interpretative view which has been available in the Judeo-Christian tradition long before the physical sciences ever began to offer reasons to prefer it over a literalistic view. There’s evidence that Jewish rabbis were already discussing it in the Babylonian exile period, before Christ. (We’ve no evidence prior to that, but that makes sense, because it was only around then that the ancients began to develop the literalistic style of writing intended to convey important facts without artistic decoration. Prior to that, the artistry was the only way to make things memorable; but as the idea of written records began to emerge, the use of symbols and literary devices like rhyme as mnemonic devices to ensure reliable transmission became less important.) Philo of Alexandria offers a pre-Christian example; and Maimonides shows that this view cannot be considered an outlier in the Jewish tradition. In the Christian era, St. Augustine of Hippo’s (c. 400 A.D.) non-literal view of the six days of creation is the most famous example, but there are others.

        Now the problem is that the American situation confuses this whole tableau. First, Protestants are more numerous in America than Catholics and Eastern Orthodox; quite the opposite of the historical norm. And because Protestants take their cue from Luther’s innovation called “Sola Scriptura” (taking Scripture alone as the sole authoritative source for Christian doctrine) they tend (apart from their academics) to shy away from Christian tradition. As a result, your average American Christian, even one who is quite devout and well-informed about the Bible in general, is pretty ignorant of Christian history in the range from 100 A.D. until 1500 A.D. (which is to say: three-quarters of that history).

        It is within that context that the squabble between the American mainline denominations’ seminarians in the late 19th century, and the reaction against non-literalism which later became known as “fundamentalism,” comes into play. To simplify greatly: Some clergy who had learned about the idea of interpreting Genesis non-literalistically in seminary said, “Oh, well, okay: I’m having difficulty believing that Jesus walked on water or fed 5,000 people by multiplying loaves and fishes. But I have a nice stipend and no other kind of job experience, so I want to keep preaching. So, I’ll just interpret those allegorically, and solve all my problems that way.”

        In reaction against this, some other clergy said, “No, you can’t ditch all the fundamentals of the Christian faith merely because you yourself are drifting into apostasy, and still call it Christianity. For truth-in-labeling purposes, at least, there are certain fundamentals that are non-optional.” A reasonable enough response, but over time folks disagreed about what was “fundamental” and what wasn’t…and because of Sola Scriptura and suspicious attitudes towards Catholic sources, they had little recourse to Christian tradition to help them resolve the question of what was “fundamental.” The ancient Creeds, for example, would have been the norm for what was “fundamental” in their day, but those Creeds are post-Biblical, and were thus strongly downplayed in the American Protestant world. So, certain American Protestants who were seeking for a standard for what was “fundamental” increasingly began to rely on Biblical literalism as their way to judge whether something was really Christian or not.

        This works fine, of course, for books/passages that are obviously literal; e.g., the passion narratives in the Gospels, or for Luke’s “travelogue” called “Luke Part 2: The Acts of the Apostles.” And it obviously works fine for books/passages that are obviously non-literal; e.g., Jesus’ parables. But it fails pretty miserably for artwork like the Book of Job and the Genesis creation narratives, especially if you can’t read the Hebrew and don’t know anything about parallelism, which is the hallmark of Hebrew poetry. Absent that, and mindful of your ongoing struggle to hold on to “the fundamentals” of Christianity against those who’d water it down, you’re going to read Genesis 1-3 as if it was courtroom stenography. Which is like hearing someone complain that it’s raining cats and dogs, and rushing outside to get a free pet.

        And thus you got the weirdness of the Scopes Monkey Trial, and of modern-era holdouts like Ken Ham’s website Answers In Genesis. If these folks could grasp that Genesis 1-3 should be interpreted less like a newspaper column and more like the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie” — conveying references to real events and opining about something really true and important, but in highly figurative language — there’d have been no problem at all. But the history of Christianity on this continent conspired to make them suspicious of everything that would have warned them away from that error.

        Sorry for all the history. But I thought it apropos because you expressed skepticism about whether the view of God I was expressing was something ancient and intrinsic to Christianity, or whether it was a modern adaptation in reaction to (presumably) Darwin or just science in general. Now, a person familiar with Christian history wouldn’t have needed to say that; but, in America, there’s not a lot of familiarity with that history, and there’s this ongoing (and utterly unnecessary) science-faith squabble. So it seemed reasonable, while pointing out how ancient this view of God was, to also express why the broad swath of Christian tradition was so frequently unreferenced in American Christianity on the popular man-in-the-street level.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Whoa. You’ve either got to get your own blog or write shorter comments. I’ll get back to you.

        • R.C.

          I plan on getting my own blog; it’s one of those “get around to it” things.

          And, I apologize for the length. In fact I just added an addendum. (Sorry! It’s much shorter!)

          But, in my defense, it’s hard to cram several decades’ accumulated information, all of which seems to tie together and be relevant to the topic, into only a few sentences without lapsing into oversimplification or vagueness, which then (sometimes) gets lampooned by any wag who opts to willfully misunderstand it in the most absurd ways. So I find myself writing defensively, full of all kinds of clarifying phrases and preemptive caveats. And the word count skyrockets.

          I could of course rewrite it five times and thereby cut it down to maybe, half-size. But that’d take far longer than the 10 minutes it took me to type the post initially. So you get the un-expurgated version.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Yep, you need a blog. I’ll get to your comments soon.

        • R.C.

          Take your time.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          He doesn’t need it; supposing Him to exist, it follows that He can stick up for Himself!

          So you’d think. And yet Christians are always trying to play games with the facts. If God’s existence is as obvious as the sun’s, I’ll just open my eyes and the evidence should be clear, right?

          It is rather asserting the idea of a God outside time, who did things “before” there was time, who will still exist if time ceases to exist.

          This view of a god who’s in harmony with quantum physics and modern cosmology is a hard one to imagine reading Genesis. And, again, I think that if we were to imagine the Roman pantheon surviving to become the biggest religion, we’d see that morphing to adapt to modern scientific realities as well.

          And, whereas creation myths in most cultures …

          You’re saying that Yahweh and Genesis don’t look like they came out of the prevailing myths of surrounding cultures? That they were complete blank-page rewrites? That’s certainly not my take.

          The Judeo-Christian God, from His earliest days, is an Unmoved First Mover.

          The Judeo-Christian God, from his earliest days, is a variation of what came before—Ugaritic, Babylonian, Sumerian (etc.) legends.

          And Gnostics either borrowed names from ancient gods …

          I’ll grant you that other religions could’ve borrowed from Christianity. (The story of Apollonius of Tyana, for example). Given that, why not imagine Christianity borrowing from others?

          If you are American, you must remember that American Christianity is an odd beast ….

          The ferment that is American Christianity, which has thrown out so much variation in such a short amount of time, shows us how religion works. People create variations on a theme. Remember that early Christianity was even more broad in its thinking (Ebionites, Marcionites, Gnostics, proto-orthodox).

          It happened in the recent past; it happened in the distant past. I’m not sure that American Christianity is odd.

          how would it be heard by its earliest hearers, in the centuries before it was put to paper?

          “Decades,” don’t you mean?

        • R.C.

          I’m running low on time, so just a quick couple of responses….

          Re: “in the centuries before it was put to paper”: I think I had Genesis in mind, in that particular sentence; in which case, anything coming from Abraham’s time or earlier would have traversed centuries (at minimum!) of oral tradition before being set out by Moses in any written form. That’s assuming that Moses had it from his forebears rather than composing it for the Israelites’ edification as a correction, a counter-narrative, to the pagan creation myths that the Israelites had picked up in Egypt; in that case it’d be a shorter period, or even an immediate writing-down.

          But if I were speaking about, say, the New Testament writings, I’d argue for a range dating from maybe five-to-ten years after the Resurrection for the earliest of Paul’s epistles to as late as sixty years after, for some of John’s writing. So there, yeah, it’d be “decades.”

          Re: “Ebionites”, “Marcionites”, “Gnostics” (I’m not sure quite who you mean by “proto-orthodox”) I would not describe these as being “broad-minded” Christianity but rather as simply not Christianity, just as I would call Zoroaster not a Christian. Whatever one’s opinion about the truth of the original article, one looks for the original article and its distinctives. The original article can plausibly develop, using the pattern of taking the earliest dogmas to be true, and using them as premises upon which to reason towards a conclusion which logically follows from them without contradicting them. But changes which radically alter the original are not development but substitution. In the case of Marcion especially, the case is very clear: He had to get his scissors out and cut up Luke’s gospel a hundred different ways before it would say what he wished it to say!

          So, yes, people create variations on a theme; and some of those variations turn out to be contradictions. I think American Christianity is problematic insofar as it contradicts the pattern of apostolic Christianity, which paid attention to “the apostolic tradition” and, in fact, to the apostles’ successors in ministry as having authoritative teaching offices in the Messianic Kingdom. By jettisoning that, one cuts oneself off from tradition and thus from certain kinds of error-correction in the matter of Biblical interpretation. If your only guide to avoiding heresy is to take every writing of uncertain genre to be literalistic chronological history, then sometimes you’ll be taking a passage that way when it was never intended that way.

          About Yahweh as Creator being a “blank page rewrite”: Well, yes, I think that, even after reading so many of the other ones. And I would mean that even if it turned out that Moses’ composition of the creation story was prompted by his reading the other myths in circulation and saying to himself, “No, no, no, this is all wrong; I need to straighten this out.”

          But of course I don’t mean they’re going to look vastly different at first glance. First, a creation myth is a stylized kind of writing, and one will follow certain conventions, just as one will begin a fairy-tale by saying “Once upon a time….” Secondly, the author must of necessity use terminology and even titles picked up from the surrounding languages and cultures. How else could he communicate at all? But when one gets behind the usage I think the message is different, and pretty distinctive. Creation ex nihilo, characterizing creation liturgically and God as Father in an intimate way, neglecting to provide divinity to the sun or moon or land or sky, setting man above these as being made “in the image of God,” yet also low, among the beasts, physically “formed” from mud: The conventions all have a peculiar twist to them that says, “not so fast” to one’s casual assumptions.

          (An analogy: One might accuse a quantum physicist of meaning the same thing by his term “atom” that Democritus meant by the same word. Then, when you found him saying that his atoms could be split — the opposite of what a-tom meant for Democritus — you’d accuse him of contradicting himself. Then he’d get down to quanta, calling them “particles,” and you’d say he was sounding like Democritus again. But he isn’t; it just takes digging deep into what he means to reveal the differences.)

          You say, in response to my comment that the Bible asserts a God outside time, that “This view of a god who’s in harmony with quantum physics and modern cosmology is a hard one to imagine reading Genesis.” I don’t see why. Are you reading it as if it were written by Steven Hawking, or even Herodotus? Read it like ancient Hebrew writing; and if that’s too unfamiliar, read it like a Jon Anderson 70′s Yes lyric, a sort of word poem in which the structure set up by repeated or contrasted phrases (“God formed” vs. “God created”; “There was evening and there was morning, the Nth day”; “and God saw that it was good”) is more important for identifying the chief themes than the words themselves are. Or go read through the website “understandingamericanpie.com” and ask yourself, “If I knew that Don McLean had written the first chapter of Genesis, how would I approach figuring out what it meant? Would I have any reason to complain that it didn’t use terms like cosmic expansion? Would I have any reason to complain that the plants and man seem out-of-order in Chapter 2 relative to Chapter 1?” You’re supposed to be more sophisticated than the Answers In Genesis crowd: Don’t adopt their literary blockheadedness if you don’t have to!

          I think that, read properly, it looks as if timekeeping is set up as part of the liturgy of creation, or else is conveyed as having little meaning initially — isn’t everyone always harping about the light preceding the sun and the sun not being created until the fourth day?

          And St. Paul seems to have no problem with the idea of something happening before there was time, judging by his letter to the Ephesians: “For he chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” John’s Revelation speaks of Jesus being “the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world”: A funny phrase, since Jesus was slain around 30 or 33 A.D. The view being related is that God stands outside time; anything He does from our perspective happens on a date, but that date intersects our timeline, coming in from outside that timeline. God meanwhile is not forced to view one moment of time after another as we are, but views all times as Now in the same way that He views all places as Here. He is omnipresent both spatially and temporally. He is currently observing your birth, your death, and every moment inbetween; they’re all happening at different times to you but in one big Now to Him. Jesus’ sacrifice is “before the foundation of the world” from His perspective; but it happened on a particular passover, from ours.

          Okay, I said I was going to be brief and I never keep my word about that. It’s after midnight, now. Argh. Gotta go.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          RC:

          I think I had Genesis in mind

          OK–I was thinking New Testament. Got it.

          a correction, a counter-narrative, to the pagan creation myths that the Israelites had picked up in Egypt

          But you still find Babylonian, Sumerian, and Ugaritic elements in the OT. It’s not like the OT was new.

          I’m not sure quite who you mean by “proto-orthodox”

          That’s Bart Ehrman’s term for “that which would become orthodox Christianity.”

          I would not describe these as being “broad-minded” Christianity

          Broad, not broad-minded. I’m saying that the range of Christianity was broader than we have it now, since it encompassed Gnosticism and Marcionism. (Though that statement could be challenged, I suppose.)

          In the case of Marcion especially, the case is very clear: He had to get his scissors out and cut up Luke’s gospel a hundred different ways before it would say what he wished it to say!

          I’m not sure his situation is unique. Seeing back through the NT to the original religion is difficult.

          About Yahweh as Creator being a “blank page rewrite”: Well, yes, I think that, even after reading so many of the other ones.

          And reading about Yahweh and El and Asherah in the Ugaritic texts?? The Genesis 1 creation story (and where the water came from for the Flood) comes from Sumerian cosmology, for example.

          You still think that Judaism bore no resemblance to any other culture or religion?

          the author must of necessity use terminology and even titles picked up from the surrounding languages and cultures. How else could he communicate at all?

          That the OT is simply a patchwork of mythology from previous cultures is a slam-dunk refutation that this religion is real. If you’re saying that there are novel elements, sure, I see that. Doesn’t rescue the religion, however.

          One might accuse a quantum physicist of meaning the same thing by his term “atom” that Democritus meant by the same word.

          If God were real, he wouldn’t allow himself to be called the same thing as the false god of the Ugaritic religion up the coast.

          If I knew that Don McLean had written the first chapter of Genesis

          But Don McLean didn’t. It was God (who, I hear, is a pretty smart guy). He’s surely able to convey the right message. And yet Genesis looks like yet another ancient mythology.

          isn’t everyone always harping about the light preceding the sun and the sun not being created until the fourth day?

          Yep. And the proper response isn’t to hold on to the religion at all costs and rationalize how this could make sense. Rather, we must reconsider whether this ancient book really is anything more than myth.

          Revelation speaks of Jesus being “the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world”: A funny phrase, since Jesus was slain around 30 or 33 A.D. The view being related is that God stands outside time; anything He does from our perspective happens on a date

          This is rationalization. This is hammering the Bible to fit the shape of your belief. Shouldn’t you read the Bible as it’s actually written?

      • R.C.

        Oh, one addendum:

        You said, of your intended experiment in prayer:

        It’s more like a shout into the cosmos, “Hello–is anyone there?” and listening for any response. That is, the experiment is deliberately not biased toward Christianity.

        Fair enough, but, because of the reasons I gave above, do you see how, as a purely psychological event, a shout into the cosmos would be, after a fashion, a shout in the wrong direction?

        It might work fine for a pagan deity that was specifically depicted as emerging from the cosmos; and seeing how such folk are depicted much like aliens with superpowers — the version of Thor depicted in the recent series of movies is perhaps not so very far off from the Thor of the Vikings — one supposes that if one’s telepathic “voice” could reach far enough, such a deity could answer if they cared to.

        It might even work fine for the Brahman of Hindu pantheism, in the sense of a god who is one with the physical universe: “…his whole universe is Brahman, from Brahman to a clod of earth.” By shouting at the cosmos, one shouts at Brahman. (But the Advaita view of this is very slippery and I acknowledge that the preceding statement probably involves some oversimplification.)

        But by talking into the cosmos one would be talking past the God of Christianity and Judaism. Imagine a scene in which you stand in the doorway of a house, and the architect and builder of that house is standing outside on the front walk, and you opt to talk to him by turning in the doorway to face inward and speaking into an empty foyer!

        Now, I caution that I don’t at all mean that, by speaking in “the wrong direction,” you’d go unheard! Obviously I don’t think that some little three year old who looks up to the sky and speaks to God that way is going to go “unheard” on that basis.

        Indeed, the scene I just asked you to imagine is inaccurate inasmuch as you’d have to imagine the architect having…oh, I dunno, an intercom system installed in every wall of the house, or something like that. And you’d have to have the entire house’s continued existence somehow depending on him willing it to continue existing…at which point, we’re obviously stretching the analogy far beyond what it’ll bear!

        So, again, I’m not saying that a person (like a three-year-old) who has a child’s view, or even a pagan’s view, of divinity is going to get ignored by God just because he prays while laboring under misconceptions. We all do that, to varying degrees.

        But I am saying that, assuming for the sake of argument that what Christians say about God is true, then part of His personality is to be, after the manner of a good Father observing His kids’ growth towards maturity, “easily pleased, but hard to satisfy.” He would not be content with allowing His creations to be slackers of any kind, including intellectually. And you’re not a three-year-old. So you would want, from the outset, to “pray your age” (in the sense of “acting your age”).

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I’m missing your point. What about this is not “praying my age”?

          I realize that there is no heaven up above the clouds. But, since I can’t aim my shout aligned with the 4th dimension or shout into the supernatural world, why might I be speaking in the wrong direction?

        • R.C.

          I love the phrase, “aim my shout aligned with the 4th dimension.” In fact that’s the first step of the kind of “meta-ness” I had in mind. (I’m reminded of Douglas Adams’ great bit about what awful bastards the folks in the 5th dimension were, and how people wanted to wipe them all out, “and would, too, if anyone could figure out how to fire missiles at right angles to reality.”)

          But I don’t mean “direction” literally, but figuratively. I mean in the sense of a willed, psychological state of affairs. Having the right intention. Or, failing that, at least intending to have the right intention.

          The classic Judeo-Christian quote is, “God looketh at the heart.” If you’re the type of person whose imagination is such that, despite your best efforts, you can’t conceive of God as anything other than a sort of superhero in the sky, then God meets you at your point of need and honors the fact that you tried to do the best that you knew.

          But if you can, in your own capacity, reasonably view Him as someone both transcendent and immanent, as a potential adoptive Father and possible rightful King, and yet you choose not to view Him that way, then…well, to whatever degree your attitude in prayer — emotionally and intellectually, in the head and in the guts — is willfully adopting a stance of “I’m addressing someone as limited and creature-ly as Zeus or Thor,” then God will “take you at your word” (or rather, at your will) and allow you to go on addressing that nonexistent entity that isn’t Him. That, after all, is what you opted for; so that’s what He allowed.

          I say, “God will” do this. I should have said, “God probably will.” This is only a suspicion on my part. It’s up to Him of course. He isn’t safely predictable. But in my admittedly limited experience, and the broader experience of others whom I have read, His usual character is to give people, in a certain sense, exactly what they are looking for.

          By this, I mean that to those who are sincerely seeking Him, He gives exactly the assistance they need for exactly so long as they need it — in His opinion, not necessarily theirs ! — and that includes condescending to put up with all kinds of crude misconceptions or mixed motives on our part, provided they’re things we can’t help. (Love stoops to conquer.) But when they are things we can help, He usually takes a different approach. It’d be a bad, creepy kind of lover who hacked your mobile phone so that no matter whom you tried to call, he was always the one picking up! God is not like that.

          So to folks whose core intention is to feign an attempt to contact some deity whom they really, if it came right down to it, would hate to converse with? Whose heart’s desire is really to get no response at all? Or who wouldn’t mind a response from a Thor or Zeus, but who really wants nothing to do with any One more ominous, more numinous, than that? Someone who wouldn’t mind having a sort of telepathic alien pen-pal but who has no interest in brushing up against a being who might have Rightful Claims upon their time, their talents, their money, their opinions, their obedience?

          I think that in most cases, God allows folks with intentions like that to get their wish, which is Anything But Him.

          And anyway, if whenever you directed prayer to “some sky fairy or other comparable to the pagan deities,” God responded, He’d be confirming that error in you…confirming that He was “some sky fairy.” Not what He’s after!

          So I suspect if, for the term “The Judeo-Christian deity” your firm internal definition is “a sky fairy” and that’s whom you wish to address, then the creator of heaven and earth will — probably — grant you your wish and allow you to address that phantasm. In response to a prayer intentionally addressed to such a being, I suspect — indeed I would hope — that you would get no response at all.

          I suspect that it is only when a person like that earnestly tries to banish the sky-fairy misconception and, in its place, sincerely says, “I am praying not to who I imagine You to be, but to who You know Yourself to be, apart from any of my hopes and preferences” that God considers Himself to have been addressed.

          And of course that may be the problem. If you can’t bring yourself to mean that — it is a rather naked feeling when sincerely meant — then all this talking into the air is probably pointless. You don’t, at your core, want to talk to Him, and He’s considerate of your wishes.

          He’s the one person in the whole universe (or out of it) that you can’t offer to shake hands with, and then draw back your hand saying, “Psyyyche!” (Not sure if you’re familiar with that bit of 4th-grader playground culture.)

        • Bob Seidensticker

          RC:

          But if you can, in your own capacity, reasonably view Him as someone both transcendent and immanent, as a potential adoptive Father and possible rightful King

          But keep in mind that, for this experiment, the idea is to remain at a deist level.

          He isn’t safely predictable.

          Have you ever considered that that’s because he’s nonexistent? Would that hypothesis explain the facts better?

          His usual character is to give people, in a certain sense, exactly what they are looking for.

          Is this biblical? Or a recent invention?

          It’d be a bad, creepy kind of lover who hacked your mobile phone so that no matter whom you tried to call, he was always the one picking up!

          Christians often give examples like this to explain why God is so hidden. Is that your intention? There’s nothing creepy about making your existence known.

          So to folks whose core intention is to feign an attempt to contact some deity whom they really, if it came right down to it, would hate to converse with?

          The god of the Old Testament is a nasty piece of work. I would not enjoy talking with that guy. Being a sycophant so I don’t get sent to hell, maybe, but I couldn’t enjoy it.

          God allows folks with intentions like that to get their wish, which is Anything But Him.

          I’m going off on lots of tangents admittedly, but this makes me think that you’re trying to excuse the immorality of hell. “Hell is locked from the inside,” and all that.

          Any predictions on how this experiment will turn out for me?

          You don’t, at your core, want to talk to Him, and He’s considerate of your wishes.

          Why should I? He’s an unpleasant character at every turn.

  • R.C.

    Bob:

    Sorry for not replying in the earlier thread. But the combox software is doing that thing where there’s no “Reply” button once you’re a certain number of levels deep.

    I’d like to first answer your question which responded to my statement “He isn’t safely predictable” which was, “Have you ever considered that that’s because he’s nonexistent? Would that hypothesis explain the facts better?”

    First, let me point out that you may have misconstrued what I was saying. I was not saying that, “If you pray sincerely and directly to Him as He is, He will respond…or maybe not; He isn’t predictable.” The phrase “He isn’t safely predictable” was not a CYA. I was, rather, saying: “If you do business with Him directly as He is, without willfully putting some kind of blockage in place, then He will start doing business with you…but if you do put some kind of blockage in place, I think He’ll let you have your way, but I’m not sure He will, because He isn’t safely predictable. He may opt to surprise you anyway.”

    But as for the question, “Have you ever considered that that’s because he’s nonexistent? Would that hypothesis explain the facts better?” …

    Well, sure, I’ve considered that. I’ve more than considered it; and more than once. It’s hard to be a Christian and not face that possibility daily, because everywhere you turn someone’s saying or implying it. Imagine being, oh, I dunno, a political conservative living on a college campus at film school in a dorm where all the televisions are tuned to MSNBC or something. Or maybe a political left-progressive who’s been assigned five daily readings of National Review, Commentary, The American Conservative, Reason, and The Daily Selection From Hayek, Mises, or Friedman. “Have I considered…?” Heck, yes!

    And anyway, being a Christian is hard work, and sometimes this persistent, repeated, daily, hourly act-of-the-will of being open to God, faithful to God…it gets tiresome, stale, distasteful, a grind. So there is both the intellectual challenge from society and the emotional temptation. There is the “What if I’ve been deceiving myself all these years?” and also the “Wouldn’t it be easier not to bother?”

    Now, you don’t answer these questions every day, if you want to retain sanity and proportion in life. It would be a bit like living in a community of Holocaust deniers, knowing perfectly well what the truth was, but having it challenged all the time. You can’t go through the mental effort of a full-dress, hours-or-days-long, exhaustive apologia every time someone said something you disagreed with, or you’d never think about anything else.

    On the other hand, for intellectual honesty, you have to know that you have addressed both issues sometime in the last few years, that you’ve given the opposite possibility a fair shot, or else you’ll begin to worry you’re running away from unrefuted arguments instead of ignoring thrice-refuted ones. My approach was, on different occasions, to try — to really firmly attempt — to not believe in God and live and think like an atheist (but retaining the same natural-law moral restrictions), and in that mood, try to give the arguments for both sides their full due.

    But I find that I am unable to make the attempted atheism “take,” so to speak. In particular, the argument for the atheist side of things gets tripped up either by counterarguments or by contradictory experiences, so then I find that it starts looking for back doors like “wouldn’t life be easier if…” and then the argument slips to the emotional side, where my good sense begins to rally and say, “easier has nothing to do with true.” It could even be, “Don’t you find yourself resenting and hating the idea of…” but when I chase that feeling down, I find what I’m really doing is resenting and hating a person interfering with me; and of course it makes no sense to become an atheist on account of resenting and hating a personal God on account of Him interfering with my business. So as soon as I’m aware of that underlying motive, the jig is up.

    I’ve tried to pursue the experiment for as much as a few days before. Last time ’round, at the end of it, I got a sense that He was there waiting, had been waiting patiently for me to get my s*** together, so that we could “get on with it.” He was like, “You finished?” And I was like, “Yeah. All squared away. Tired, a bit drained, but I’m in level flight, for now.” And He was like, “Good.”

    And let me add: While I just characterized living with God to be a grind, et cetera, I don’t mean that I don’t find it in the end to be a thing of joy, peace, comfort, all that stuff. It is. He is. But it seems to be a life of ever-increasing delayed gratification with ever-longer periods of “slog,” and I stink at delayed gratification. I tend to repeatedly wander off the path — just a little while! I tell myself; just a little break! — from anything involving slogging, however kindly I know the the welcome-home will be at day’s end.

    So it’s a struggle. While I don’t seriously, exhaustively consider the alternative on even a weekly basis, it’s hard for a day to go by without the existence of that alternative to wave its little flag in my face, so to speak.

    On a related topic: Higher up in the comments, you replied to Cole Van Horn and commented about how, from your point-of-view, the Christians seemed immune to the intellectual arguments or challenges you raise.

    Well, look at it this way: Assuming for the sake of argument that the Christian hypothesis is true, then the Christian “knows the guy.” Calling them “immune” to argument is true, but not because they’re taking a non-rational position. It’s rather because they’re experiencing a living reality, not just taking an arbitrary side in debating a particular abstract hypothesis.

    So, in a sense they’re going to be immune to the “God is a fantasy” hypothesis because, well, they know Him. In a complicated way, but as a reality nonetheless.

    Final observation:

    You have a fixed notion of how the Old Testament portrays God. I won’t try to dissuade you from it because seeing it any other way — heck, being open to considering it any other way — probably requires at least being half-way convinced that God is real.

    But against that bit of data, please note that you have the contradictory bit of data of Christians seeing continuity from Old Testament to the New; and, even, of Jews not feeling that way about the Old Testament: So, there’s something in between the lines that you’re not seeing. I don’t think you can be shown what it is, given your current state-of-mind; but, rather than make your judgment of YHWH a fixed thing, perhaps you should consider it provisional, with an asterisk beside it noting that there exists some conflicting data. That way you leave it open to reconsideration if the conflicting data should happen to multiply.

    However, since you ask for a prediction…,

    My guess is that nothing will come of the kind of prayer experiment you’re doing, given the input assumptions you’re carrying into it. The “anonymous deity” profile you have in mind, which sort of uses comparative religion to abstract away all distinctives, seems to me scarcely even to allow for Zeus, but to allow for Zeus far better than YHWH. It seems like an exercise in averaging together the phone numbers of a lot of celebrities, coming up with the number 555-5555, and calling that. I don’t suppose anyone has that number, so I don’t suppose anyone will “answer.”

    The negative associations you have with the latter might also get in the way: You view Him as a psychopath, or whatever, but I think the reality is His character is most like that of the loving father in the prodigal son story. Having that reality in mind, it’s hard for me to imagine someone calling out to a roomful of people, “Hey, is there a psychopathic dictatorial evil bad guy around?” and having the loving father answer, “That’s me.” It feels like another “wrong number”; I wouldn’t expect anyone to “pick up.”

    So those are my expectations. But as I relate them to you, I find myself hesitating and thinking…well, it’s all very pat. All very mechanical. It treats relationship like technology. It doesn’t leave room for God. “Man proposes, God disposes.” He can do what He wants to do. So, while I’m willing to hazard the above as a guess, I don’t feel comfortable stating it with more certainty. Surprises happen.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      RC:

      RC: A little more haiku here, please! Your comments are thoughtful and polite but a bit long.

      It would be a bit like living in a community of Holocaust deniers, knowing perfectly well what the truth was, but having it challenged all the time.

      We live in different communities, so it may not be comparable, but it ain’t easy being an atheist either (and being unelectable to any public office). So go easy on how tough it is to be a Christian in America!

      My approach was, on different occasions, to try — to really firmly attempt — to not believe in God and live and think like an atheist (but retaining the same natural-law moral restrictions)

      Very open minded. Great to hear.

      the argument for the atheist side of things gets tripped up either by counterarguments or by contradictory experiences

      Counterarguments? Show me some good ones. As for experiences, if you’re referring to emotional kinds of things (things that wouldn’t convince someone else), I can appreciate that.

      a life of ever-increasing delayed gratification with ever-longer periods of “slog,”

      Sounds like relevant evidence … but you’ve already made clear that you consider such contradictory evidence.

      So it’s a struggle.

      Well, there’s atheism! No intellectual struggle for me. No doubts. C’mon in–the water’s fine! :)

      rather than make your judgment of YHWH a fixed thing, perhaps you should consider it provisional

      Of course. My hypothesis that God doesn’t exist is provisional.

      It seems like an exercise in averaging together the phone numbers of a lot of celebrities, coming up with the number 555-5555, and calling that. I don’t suppose anyone has that number, so I don’t suppose anyone will “answer.”

      Nice!

      The negative associations you have with the latter might also get in the way: You view Him as a psychopath

      I’ve seen his actions in the OT. Seriously–what other evaluation is possible?

      I think the reality is His character is most like that of the loving father in the prodigal son story.

      Cool! I wonder then why he doesn’t just forgive us then–y’know, like the loving father in the prodigal son story. Why he invented hell. Why he demands a human sacrifice. Why he gets so annoyed at our errors when we simply act the way he designed us to act.

      It treats relationship like technology. It doesn’t leave room for God.

      This is indeed far too complicated. Does this guy exists? This is the very first question that needs to be asked, and there’s basically zero evidence. We just gotta use faith. And that’s not going to work for me.

      He can do what He wants to do.

      Sure, once we’ve figured out that he really exists or not. Until that point, I’m skeptical.

      • R.C.

        Bob, I really seriously have like a couple of minutes this time, so while you won’t get an exhaustive reply, you’ll get more “haiku,” per your request:

        You say that “This is indeed far too complicated.”

        I don’t mean to exasperate you or make your head hurt, but, well, really, what did you expect, given the subject matter?

        Reality is complicated. A table with a book sitting on it looks simple, but only because you’re summarizing it and deliberately excluding all the complicated details by saying the word “table” and the word “book” and the words “sitting on.”

        But as soon as you ask how it is, given that the atoms of both are mostly empty space, the book doesn’t fall right through the table — once you start investigating in detail — you get electrons that don’t have any definite position but which operate at specific energy levels forming a cloud of electrical repulsion which crystalizes at lower energy levels out of the electroweak. And then you find that “mostly empty space” has spontaneous vacuum fluctuations and “quantum foam” and there may be dark matter and dark energy…and in the end your head is whirling with mysteries that are counterintuitive at every turn, some of which remain unexplained to this day.

        In the end, you’re left accepting what is known despite the fact that it’s often mysterious and counterintuitive. You’re also left admitting that the unknown parts, while unsettling, are insufficient to overwhelm your reasons for the parts you’re confident in, and admitting that apparent contradictions in your model arise in fringe cases (e.g. between QM and General Relativity at small scales and high energies). But you remain unwilling to chuck the whole framework for that reason alone.

        Okay, so that’s what happens when you scope out the fundamentals of mere physical reality. Metaphysics is what underlies that; if there are laws of the universe at all then metaphysical truths are the ink in which they are written; hence the formation “meta”-physics. And supposing God to exist, then He stands behind the metaphysics. I can think of no reason to expect the fundamental nature of these realities to be any less confusing, any less counter-intuitive, than the fundamentals of physics.

        To sum up: Complicated? Par for the course.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          RC:

          Why is metaphysics not mental masturbation? That is, what has metaphysics done for me lately?

          (I mean those as naïve and uneducated questions. There could be substantial value that’s right under my nose that I’ve missed.)

    • Bob Seidensticker

      RC: I included a bit of your comment in my most recent post, FYI. Thanks for the insights.

  • Niemand

    The prayer should be kept as open as possible

    Rather late to the party and possibly repetitive, but I have to ask…why this restriction? If the Christian god exists and is more or less as they say s/he is, why can’t he (using the male pronoun for convenience although some Christians insist that god is both male and female) respond to a specific prayer as well as or better than a non-specific one?

    Actually, I would think that a specific request would work better because there is less ambiguity about what happened and whether the deity caused it. For example, suppose you were suddenly to become inperceptible: you couldn’t be seen, heard, smelt, touched, etc by anyone else. But you could affect inanimate objects in ways that would indicate your existence (but, just to make things harder, you can’t hold a pen or write on a keyboard-but you can, for example, open a book to a specific page or move a specific object to a new point). Your friends and relatives are naturally very unhappy about your sudden absence and long to hear from you. One, for whatever reason, guesses the truth and insists that you are still here. If she or he said, “Bob, if you’re here, please demonstrate your existence” and you opened a favorite book to a favorite scene, the others might say, “That was just the wind” or something similar. If she or he said, “Bob, if you’re here, open book X to scene Y” and you did, that would make it more convincing. Especially if repeated several times. So I would think that god would be happier being asked for specific actions that would be more proof of divine intervention rather than vague requests that can be easily written off as self deception or coincidence.

    In short, the experiment seems to me designed to maximize the possibility of a positive at the cost of an extremely high risk of false positivity.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      The idea is to make a generic “Hello–anyone there?” request instead of “God of Abraham and Isaac, I ask that you make yourself known.” It doesn’t preclude. If that god responds better to a targeted prayer, then this experiment isn’t going to target him so much. It’s a deist prayer, not a Christian one.

      Unless we presume the Christian god, why target him instead of any of the thousands of other gods?

      • Niemand

        Still, if a god, any god that is interested in humanity, is out there, why can’t he, she, it, or they just reveal themselves? Write “Repent Bob” in stars or call from the heavens demanding the hearts of 351 slaughtered enemies or allow people to be born with the memory of their past lives to prove reincarnation? Why are blind obedience to authority or unprovable personal revelation the only possible ways to reach the divine? Can’t god get a phone? Email? Are there no cell towers in heaven? And so on. It should be easy for a divine, omnipotent or at least supremely powerful being to reach humanity.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          That God is silent says quite a bit.

        • Niemand

          Indeed.

  • Susan Peterson

    You know about Pascal’s wager, right? He asked for a bit more than a few minutes a day for 40 days.
    Personally, as a new believer I was shocked by Pascal’s wager. I didn’t think one could make a wager with God, and furthermore, I thought only the desire for truth should drive one’s actions and thoughts about God/or about what reality is, not a self interested calculation about heaven and hell. I guess I understand the point of view of the wager a little bit better now, but don’t really like it. As for praying, I prayed when I wasn’t sure if there were a God, but there was a lot of desire in those prayers. To those who ask it shall be given; but you really have to want it. At least you have to want the truth no matter what it might be, no?

    Ok, enough of that. You are only the second person I have ever known with your last name. The first I probably last saw close to 40 years ago. Her name (married name) was Mary Pierce Seidensticker. So I am just asking on the off chance that you know her. She would be about 65 now.
    Susan Peterson

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Susan: Yes, I know about it. And you know that it affects the believer every bit as much as the atheist?

      There are a lot more options than just Christianity and atheism. What if Buddhism is right? Then the believer and the atheist are both going to roast in Buddhist hell–that would suck. And so on for a thousand other religions.

      I definitely want the truth. I’m very doubtful, however, that there’s any to be found in prayer.

  • Keith Riley

    First a few Bible verses:
    2 Corinthians 4:3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.
    Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted.

    For those who don’t believe, the Bible frequently refers to them as “blind” or walking in darkness because the Truth is not in them. Do you think you are a good person? Read Exodus 20 and ask yourself if you have ever violated any of the 10 Commandments. If you are anything like me, I will have to assume that you have. The Bible says that, if you break one commandment, you’ve broken them all. Think about that one and think through how one commandment leads to the others being broken. The penalty for breaking one of God’s laws is death and we have all done at least that. So, the Bible says that there is no good person. It also says that sin leads to death and that we all have sinned, therefore we all die. God could have chosen to end human life and start over once Adam messed up, but He was pleased with His Creation (i.e. He saw that it was good) and, I guess, He wanted to have mercy on all of us and give us a way to reconcile with Him. And that is really what the Bible is all about…God created Man/Woman, Man/Woman disobeyed, God gives Man/Woman a way to reconcile via the signs pointing to Christ and finally with the fulfillment of the signs by Jesus Christ dying on the Christ for all who will truly believe in Him. So, God, in fact, did take the initiative. He gave us the Way to Truth and Life…and we only have to do one thing…believe.
    Unfortunately, our pride stands in our way. It blinds us. We love our sins…it makes us feel good…even though we see the destruction it brings. God love us, but what kind of love is forced? He lets us do whatever we want…in other words, we have free will. We can choose to believe or not believe. Even if we don’t believe, He still lets us have a pretty good life…at least most of the time. He gives us plenty of chances to believe, but He will not force us to believe.
    Which brings me to the Matthew 5:3,4 scriptures. When we are “poor in spirit”, it means we have gotten to the point where we realize that there is nothing good about us…we are broken…we are being fully truthful with ourselves…we realize that we need God. When we “mourn”, it means we realize the gravity of our transgressions about God…and then it happens…God opens our eyes to the kingdom of Heaven and we realize how much God loves us and we are comforted…He then comes to live within us via the Holy Spirit and we now have a “New Flesh”, one that will live forever. We have a higher calling. We no longer live for ourselves but for others…the process doesn’t happen overnight because we still deal with the old flesh (our mortal body) and battle, but just like any infant that is fed, the spirit within us grows as we feed it via the Word of God and prayers.
    If you feel any tug in your heart towards what I have just written, please give God’s salvation a try. It will change your life for the better. It will bring you peace. I know from experience. I pray that you do accept Jesus Christ as your Saviour as I would like to meet you in Heaven one day.
    But, even if you don’t, I hope your have a wonderful life during your time on earth. May God bless all of you.

    • Richard S. Russell

      “I would like to meet you in Heaven one day.”

      “And I heard the number of those who were sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel” —Revelation 7:4

      So if you’re not Jewish to begin with, and one of the lucky 12,000 from your particular tribe of Jews in the 2nd place, don’t be booking your reservations for the cool place just yet. If we meet anywhere after we die, it’s gonna be the other destination. Yeah, Bible-believing Christians, you’re up against a quota system.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Keith:

      Read Exodus 20 and ask yourself if you have ever violated any of the 10 Commandments.

      How about if you read Exodus 34 and read the real 10 Commandments. Tell me if you’ve violated any of those.

      The penalty for breaking one of God’s laws is death and we have all done at least that.

      That doesn’t sound like justice to me.

      So, the Bible says that there is no good person.

      Don’t say that too loud! God designed us, you know. We’re bad because that’s the way God made us. He’s probably a bit sensitive about how poorly we turned out …

      He wanted to have mercy on all of us and give us a way to reconcile with Him.

      I doubt it. That’s not how God rolls. Remember the millions drowned during the Flood?

      we only have to do one thing…believe.

      Only that, huh? How about this: you try to believe in leprechauns and tell me how that goes. Then you’ll know what my challenge is like.

      He will not force us to believe.

      Yeah, I hate that!

      Like, before today, I didn’t know that a Keith Riley existed. But now I do! I can no longer enjoy my blissful ignorance! Darn you, Keith Riley for forcing your existence on me!

      I hope your have a wonderful life during your time on earth.

      A nice thought. Thanks!

  • http://fernandapowers.com Fernanda

    “But to be clear, the big change I’m imagining is where atheists could come to church and be welcomed as “cultural Christians.” Believing Christians would be there as well.

    As it is now, atheists are welcome to come and kick the tires, but they’re provisional members, not full members. Membership as believers is the covert goal (from the standpoint of the congregation) of their visit.”

    This is an interesting idea. There are a couple challenges to it. One is that there are certain ways of participating in church that only believers can do. So for example, I’m Roman Catholic, and we would not want someone participating in communion unless they too believed that the consecrated bread and wine were really truly the Body and Blood of Jesus. In fact, even Christians who are not Catholic get excluded from communion because they do not believe this. The other challenge is that overall, Christians come together to worship God, and that is the main activity during the church service–at least the liturgical traditions. You could participate as an observer, but you would be participating in a different way than the people gathered.

    If you wanted to come to church as a form of inquiry, like as you say, learn the stories of Jesus but without committing to Him, a number of churches will have programs for that kind of inquiry, or that at least could be used that way. The Roman Catholic Church has RCIA, which stands for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Yes, the people who generally attend those classes are those who intend to be received into the Church, but it is perfectly acceptable for people to come to the classes just to see what is going on, or just to learn what the Church teaches with no intention of actually joining. And other than maybe an opening and closing prayer, there isn’t the awkwardness of being excluded from communion or having to watch people worship while you have no intention of doing so yourself. Sometimes Catholic churches (and also evangelical churches) will hold Bible studies that are more tailored to people who are either curious about it or just want to learn more, but who aren’t necessarily at a place where they are ready to profess that faith.

    Now, if you really do want to experience the stories of Jesus in a more communal setting (as opposed to simply reading them yourself), one thing that you will find yourself wrestling with is that the Gospels make it pretty clear that Jesus Himself was more than a good teacher with great stories. Yes, He is a good teacher and He told some awesome stories and He certainly had some great teachings that if we would only follow, could lead to peace and happiness and all kinds of great results. However, He also claimed to be God, and generally, making that claim would blow the credibility of any teacher who was merely a teacher. So, you have this dissonance of wanting to take what Jesus teaches seriously and benefit in some way from it without actually believing that He is God or converting to the religion He founded, and yet you will be bumping up against the fact that He Himself repeatedly claimed to be God and in fact, that was very important to Him and a fundamental part of His identity. I’ve never tried to ignore that part (I’ve been Christian my entire life) but I imagine that could get interesting :-)

    • http://fernandapowers.com Fernanda

      I think a big reason there isn’t more in church for what you describe as “cultural Christians” is that to be perfectly honest with you, if Christianity isn’t true, as in if Jesus isn’t God and if He didn’t rise from the dead, then it’s a pretty lame religion. I mean, Christianity asks of us that we give up everything and follow Jesus who is documented historically to have died in the most gruesome and humiliating way, present ourselves to Him as His slave where He calls the shots in our life, not us, treat everyone else like they are more important than we are, serve them in the most menial ways, accept suffering for our own good (as they say, it builds character and more specifically it serves a refining purpose, among other things), to be persecuted for believing in Him (Jesus did promise that, though it’s not a major thing here in the US yet), in short, to live not for ourselves and this world, but for Jesus and the next world–our eternal home. If Christianity is not true, why would anyone want to do all that? St. Paul even says in one of his epistles that if Jesus did not rise from the dead we who believe in Him are the most to be pitied. So I’m guessing that the historical experience has been that people who are investigating Christianity will either convert or they will lose interest.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Fernanda:

        if Christianity isn’t true … then it’s a pretty lame religion

        Like all the others (IMO).

        who is documented historically to have died in the most gruesome and humiliating way

        (1) not documented historically

        (2) fairly gruesome, but you or I might have six months of agony from cancer that would easily match this pain

        (3) he didn’t die, since he popped back into existence after a day and a half–not much of a sacrifice.

        If Christianity is not true, why would anyone want to do all that?

        That’s what I keep saying!

        • http://fernandapowers.com Fernanda

          Many historical documents mention Jesus’ death and resurrection–the four Gospels for starters and many of the early Christian writings.

          So, if Christianity without being true is a lame religion and you believe it’s not true, then why do you want to have anything to do with it? What benefit to you do you see from this lame religion?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Many historical documents mention Jesus’ death and resurrection–the four Gospels for starters and many of the early Christian writings.

          And other religions’ books say other nutty things. I don’t buy into any of it.

          And you? I’ve seen how Christians try to spin how the gospel story is better, but don’t you see a bit of a double standard as Christians accept one ancient story but laugh at another one?

          So, if Christianity without being true is a lame religion and you believe it’s not true

          Because I find value in the part that’s not religion.

        • Richard S. Russell

          “Many historical documents mention Jesus’ death and resurrection–the four Gospels for starters and many of the early Christian writings.”

          Many MORE historical documents from the same era claim that Caesar was a god. Why do you choose to believe the political propaganda of the rebels rather than the official story of the world’s greatest empire? They can’t both be right. But they CAN both be wrong!

        • http://fernandapowers.com Fernanda

          I’m not a historian or a scholar, so I would not be able to hold my own in an argument over which historical documents are the most accurate. I do know that the Bible is considered to be a historical book by most honest scholars, and I know from having read it that it mentions the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Hence, my claim that there is historical documentation for this is a sound one. I didn’t go past that point. Why do I believe the Bible? Why do I believe in God? Why do I believe in Jesus? I was taught the faith from an early age and as I grew up, I chose to continue to believe in and follow Jesus. I also believe that the Holy Spirit has worked in my life and interacted with me and others I know. So it’s a combination of my own choices and God revealing Himself to me. The Catholic Catechism says that there is a certain amount of knowledge of and belief in God that man can arrive at by his own reason, but that this reason falls short. At some point, God has to intervene and reveal Himself. He is always trying to reveal Himself. People can be open to His revelation and respond to it or they can ignore or reject it. I’m not trying to convince anyone here to believe as I believe, because arguments can only go so far, and I get the impression the atheists who participate in this blog have heard them all. All arguments, even the most brilliant ones, even the ones presenting ironclad evidence as to their veracity, will fail to convince someone who does not want to be convinced. Humans are spiritual and emotional beings, not so much logical beings. Most people come to faith in Christ not so much through their minds (logic and reason, examining all possible alternatives) as through their hearts (emotions, gut feelings). And quite frankly, people choose against God through their hearts more than through their minds as well (your emotions judge the arguments and evidence and whatever other appeals presented to you as invalid or unable to convince you or move you).

        • Richard S. Russell

          Well, at least you’re honest enuf to admit that there’s no significant difference between the divinity claims for Jesus and those for Caesar, but you just choose to believe the former because they’re the ones you were exposed to as a kid and you don’t see any need to rely on evidence or reasonability to explain why you favor that one over its competitors. You’d probably be surprised at how rare that is among Christians, most of whom will insist emphatically that “No, no, there can’t be any doubt about it! The Bible is 100% accurate, and all those other guys were deluded.”

        • http://fernandapowers.com Fernanda

          I didn’t actually say there is no difference between the divinity claims of Jesus and those of Caesar. I will readily admit that I am far more knowledgeable about Jesus than I am about Caesar :-) I do stand by what I said about why I believe, and I readily admit it was not the result of a thorough analysis of every possible religious and nonreligious option out there. I also affirm that there will always be room for doubt, that even if I could come up with a super airtight ironclad argument in favor of Jesus’ existence, resurrection or Deity, that is no guarantee that you would then believe. If you read the accounts of Jesus in the Bible (and just take the stories at face value for this), you will find that even while Jesus was alive he had detractors–people who heard Him teach, who witnessed His miracles and even the events of His death and resurrection–and who persisted in their unbelief. I’m thinking about people like His betrayer Judas Iscariot as well as scores of religious leaders who played a major role in putting Him to death (and then bribing Roman soldiers to spread rumors that His disciples stole His body and then claimed He rose from the dead). They had all the possible proof they could have and still they did not believe, so I’m under no illusions that with Jesus now in Heaven, there really is any such thing as proof that cannot be doubted. You can look at things like how many manuscripts of the Bible there are and how closely they match each other to make determinations as to the integrity of the book itself, but you’re still left with the question of what to do about the contents.

          You can have a lot of knowledge about Jesus that you derive from various historical documents and then you can try to determine from that knowledge if He actually is God, and you could come out on either side of that issue. There are some things that you aren’t going to know until you actually start listening to Him (His Holy Spirit, really), something you won’t do as long as you are insisting that He either doesn’t exist or isn’t worth your time. If you were sure I did not exist, that would limit the extent to which you could actually know me on a deeper level than just what you happened to read online that has my name on it (but which may or may not be *actually* written by me–who can tell with the Internet, right?). I’m sure if you didn’t think I actually was a person, you wouldn’t even bother replying to my comments :-) But you have some faith that I’m not just some automated spammer, so we’re communicating, and hence you have the opportunity to get to know me a little better. The analogy falls apart in that when it comes to God the stakes are much higher. Once you decide He exists then what? You find He demands your entire being, your entire allegiance, everything you have. I, on the other hand, will never make any such demands of you–so my existence is not in and of itself going to dramatically change your existence, hence it’s not a big deal for you to assume I do exist without thoroughly examining the evidence in favor of my existence.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Fernanda:

          So it’s a combination of my own choices and God revealing Himself to me.

          And if you’d been born in Pakistan or Indonesia, wouldn’t you be a Muslim? You’d be following a religion that’s not correct simply because it was part of your environment. And you’d have the same justifications–you’d filter life events through the God (Allah) filter and convince yourself that you’d backed the right horse.

          And if the Muslim deludes himself, why not the Christian?

          The Catholic Catechism says that there is a certain amount of knowledge of and belief in God that man can arrive at by his own reason

          And I’ve seen none. The arguments fall flat for me.

          He is always trying to reveal Himself.

          Doesn’t seem like he’s trying very hard.

          People can be open to His revelation and respond to it or they can ignore or reject it.

          So it’s the individual’s fault for not being open, not God’s for not being more obvious? Why wouldn’t God simply be more obvious? Even the most closed-minded atheist will accept the existence of the stranger who knocks on the door. Simply understanding that God exists shouldn’t be too much to ask.

          will fail to convince someone who does not want to be convinced.

          OK, but atheist closed mindedness isn’t really the problem, I think. It’s lack of evidence.

          Most people come to faith in Christ not so much through their minds (logic and reason, examining all possible alternatives) as through their hearts (emotions, gut feelings).

          True. Not a very reliable path to knowledge, though.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Fernanda:

          you will find that even while Jesus was alive he had detractors–people who heard Him teach, who witnessed His miracles and even the events of His death and resurrection–and who persisted in their unbelief.

          Jesus intended his miracles to prove his divinity (Matt. 9:6; John 14:11, 10:37–8, 20:30–31). But you’re right–even seeing them first hand doesn’t always convince. Given this, why should we believe? Just because it’d be nice if it were true?

          I’m under no illusions that … there really is any such thing as proof that cannot be doubted.

          How about some decent evidence then? Let’s start with that. (But I can’t even get that out of Christian apologists!)

          you aren’t going to know until you actually start listening to Him

          So to have faith, I first need faith? I can’t do that kind of bootstrapping.

          as long as you are insisting that He either doesn’t exist

          I don’t insist that he doesn’t exist; I say there’s insufficient evidence to say that he does.

          If you were sure I did not exist

          And that gets to a key point: understanding people’s existence is rarely in doubt. So why is this trivial question of existence the big question when it comes to God? Y’know, it’s almost as if the guy didn’t actually exist.

          The analogy falls apart in that when it comes to God the stakes are much higher.

          And that the evidence is so paltry.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Fernanda:

      Christians come together to worship God, and that is the main activity during the church service–at least the liturgical traditions

      I wonder how the UU church does it. I’ve been to a few services but don’t understand it well. It’s pretty small, so whatever it’s offering doesn’t connect too much with ordinary people.

      a number of churches will have programs for that kind of inquiry

      Right, but I’m talking about a full-fledged member in this imaginary new church, someone who participates and contributes like anyone else, someone who comes for a little uplift and community, but is out as an atheist.

      Now, if you really do want to experience the stories of Jesus in a more communal setting

      I’m in a church small group meeting at someone’s house once a week, and I’m welcomed there. But of course I could never be a member as an atheist.

      However, He also claimed to be God, and generally, making that claim would blow the credibility of any teacher who was merely a teacher.

      Can a Christian not get anything out of the books of Buddhism? Or Taoism? Or any religion?

      wanting to take what Jesus teaches seriously and benefit in some way from it

      Well, probably less the Jesus part and more the community part.

      He Himself repeatedly claimed to be God

      Not exactly. We have stories about him making this claim. Big difference.

      • http://fernandapowers.com Fernanda

        I see what you’re getting at as far as what you would like to get out of Christianity–the sense of community and people looking out for each other, but not with believing in Jesus as He (per the Bible) claimed to be “I and the Father (God) are one.” Did I get that right?

        If so, then I have to ask why do you want to find that in a Christian community? There are other communities that people form that aren’t centered on Jesus Christ but which are tight knit and where people look out for each other and have each other’s backs and have good and interesting discussions. I guess I’m wondering what it is that especially draws you to Christianity, the part that you would keep, that you don’t believe you’ll find in a nonchristian community? If you’ve already written a post about it, feel free to point me to it (so you don’t have to rewrite it here).

        A couple other things. From what I understand UU tries to take components of all religions (or at least the major ones) and kind of mix them together and their members can pick and choose what works for them. So they will not be pushing any sort of absolute truth, like what Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” I don’t know which of Jesus’ teachings would make it into a UU mentality, but probably portions of the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings that do not imply an absolute truth or morality, certainly not absolute truth that would exclude other religions. And for a lot of people, when you take away the absolute truth and morality, it gets uninteresting and uncompelling, so I think the UU religion will probably stay pretty small.

        Can Christians benefit by reading works of Buddhism and other religions? Absolutely. All these other religions do contain part of the Truth and have a lot of moral teachings in common–the Ten Commandments are not unique to Christianity and Judaism. I think most people believe that you should not commit murder, steal, lie, cheat on your spouse, etc. The main reason I personally have not read much outside my religion is not that I’m against it, but that there is so much on my list just from inside my religion that I have yet to read and take in, and is just a higher priority for me. I’m simply more interested in my own faith than someone else’s. But I love talking to people who are knowledgeable about other faiths and I always learn something.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Fernanda:

          Did I get that right?

          Yes.

          If so, then I have to ask why do you want to find that in a Christian community?

          Sure, there are other communities. It simply seems to me that this would be a useful way for Christianity to evolve. I’m not seeing Christianity 2.0 as an important thing for me but rather as an important thing for Christianity.

          when you take away the absolute truth and morality, it gets uninteresting and uncompelling, so I think the UU religion will probably stay pretty small.

          Sounds right.

          there is so much on my list just from inside my religion that I have yet to read and take in, and is just a higher priority for me

          That’s my predicament, too.

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