What Is Christianity Good For?

What is Christianity good for?

I ask this question in all seriousness, not as an insult. I genuinely want to know. Eternal life in Heaven is usually held out as the greatest benefit of becoming a Christian, but that reward is said to be in the next life and is impossible for us to verify. Does Christianity have any benefits in this life, any evidence that can be offered now as partial substantiation of its grander promises later on?

I’m not looking for personal testimonies about how conversion to Christianity has changed the testifier’s life. Such stories may be deeply felt and sincerely believed, but they are also anecdotal, and like all anecdotal evidence, they have a substantial problem of confirmation bias. People who convert to Christianity and experience positive change will naturally credit this change to their conversion and want to tell everyone in sight. However, people who convert to Christianity and experience no change, or change for the worse, will be far less likely to speak up. There’s no guarantee that the people who do speak out are a representative sample. What I’m looking for is sound statistical evidence that Christian belief leads to positive results at a rate greater than chance and ideally at a rate greater than that of other religions.

So far, the evidence has come up negative in several categories:

  • Faith healing: Double-blind, peer-reviewed studies have routinely found that intercessory prayer has no beneficial effect on hospital patients’ length of recovery, mortality rate, frequency of complications, or other clinical variables. People who are being prayed for do no better than people who are not being prayed for, and in some cases (when they know prayers are being offered on their behalf), actually do worse.
  • Sex education: Abstinence-only public school sex education programs supported and taught by evangelical Christians have turned out to be a dismal failure. Surveys have repeatedly found that these programs have no effect whatsoever on the likelihood of teenagers to engage in premarital sex, to get STDs, or to become pregnant (see also). (This should be little surprise, since not teaching teenagers sex ed doesn’t mean they won’t hear about sex; it just means they won’t hear accurate information about sex.) Christian-backed “virginity pledges” fail more often than contraception; more than half of the teenagers who take them have sex within a year (more information).
  • Prisoner reform: Evangelist Charles Colson’s “InnerChange Freedom Initiative”, a fundamentalist Christian program aimed at reforming prisoners through religious education, claimed that its graduates had substantially lower recidivism rates than a matched control group. In fact, as statisticians like Mark Kleiman have found, InnerChange’s actual numbers show that their participants as a whole had slightly higher rates of rearrest and reimprisonment than inmates in the control group. Their claim to the contrary was derived by only counting those inmates who successfully completed the program and went on to get jobs after being released, while ignoring those who did less well – in other words, the basic statistical fallacy of counting the hits and forgetting the misses.

If Christianity is not good for these things, what is it good for? I’m open to evidence if any person has any to present. But in the meantime, I have a hypothesis of my own.

In 2005, the sociologist Gregory S. Paul published a much-cited study showing that quantifiable measures of societal health tend to correlate inversely with religiosity. In other words, the worse off a society’s people are, the more likely they are to be religious. The most striking example is the United States, long an aberration among industrialized countries for its unusually high levels of religious fundamentalism, and also a standout for its comparatively high levels of social ills such as homicide, juvenile mortality, teen pregnancy and STD infection.

Together with Phil Zuckerman, Paul has now published a new essay in Edge magazine, “Why the Gods Are Not Winning“, which documents the dwindling of Christianity throughout much of the First World (again, America being the exception), as compared to an explosive and historically unprecedented growth of atheism and agnosticism. I highly recommend the entire article – some of the quotes from it are real beauties:

Far from providing unambiguous evidence of the rise of faith, the devout compliers of the [World Christian Encyclopedia] document what they characterize as the spectacular ballooning of secularism by a few hundred-fold! It has no historical match. It dwarfs the widely heralded Mormon climb to 12 million during the same time, even the growth within Protestantism of Pentecostals from nearly nothing to half a billion does not equal it.

…What has changed is how people view the Bible. In the 1970s nearly four in ten took the testaments literally, just a little over one in ten thought it was a mixture of history, fables, and legends, a three to one ratio in favor of the Biblical view. Since then a persistent trend has seen literalism decline to between a quarter and a third of the population, and skeptics have doubled to nearly one in five. If the trend continues the fableists will equal and then surpass the literalists in a couple of decades.

(Note: Decades, not centuries!)

Even the megachurch phenomenon is illusory. A spiritual cross of sports stadiums with theme parks, hi-tech churches are a desperate effort to pull in and satisfy a mass-media jaded audience for whom the old sit in the pews and listen to the standard sermon and sing some old time hymns does not cut it anymore. Rather than boosting church membership, megachurches are merely consolidating it.

(Paul and Zuckerman’s comments here echo my post of last fall, “Receding Waters“. As intimidating as the megachurches seem, they cannot mask the clear trend that American religiosity, and especially American Christianity, is declining rather than gaining.)

…America’s disbelievers atheists now number 30 million, most well educated and higher income, and they far outnumber American Jews, Muslims and Mormons combined. There are many more disbelievers than Southern Baptists, and the god skeptics are getting more recruits than the evangelicals.

The thesis of Paul and Zuckerman’s article, which strikes me as entirely reasonable, is that people cling to faith for reassurance in environments of poverty, stress and uncertainty. (This does not exclude the possibility that faith can also perpetuate some of the ills its adherents seek to escape from.) Conversely, as nations become more prosperous and life becomes more comfortable and secure, the need for religion as a supernatural security blanket decreases. This, above all else, seems to be what religion and Christianity specifically are good for – as a source of reassurance in troubled times. But this does not mean they are the only or the best source, and happily, this suggests that two atheist goals are entirely aligned: as we work to improve people’s lives in real and measurable ways, the grasping after religion as a method of coping will inevitably decline.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.mysteryofiniquity.wordpress.com MOI

    Good points here. The reason I became a Christian were precisely because my husband and I had just moved 1800 miles from home, we were ready to have our first child, and we had no support system. I also had psychological issues stemming from a dysfunctional home that tilled the soil, so to speak, and which cause me to be stuck in a gullible moment in need of reassurance. Looking back on it now, I can see that I was ripe for the picking by anyone offering a message of “redemption,” “forgiveness,” or any other balm for the soul. I was young (23), and had much to learn.

    I think that Christianity fills a psychological need as well as a sociological one. It’s a divine parent that fills all the needs our family never did. In the age of such horribly repressive households, this holds a lot of appeal. For those who can’t afford psychotherapy or even basic counseling, religion is a quick fix that may work for a time. It did for me. But after a while you begin to realize that it was only a temporary shelter until I got the basic tools to precipitate my own healing.

    Christianity as an institution is another matter entirely. It has its own rewards for those invested in its structure. Men get power and you know what they say about power? I’m not sure what women get.

    Sorry to ramble, but thought I’d put my penny’s worth in.

  • Polly

    Conversely, as nations become more prosperous and life becomes more comfortable and secure, the need for religion as a supernatural security blanket decreases.

    This is odd as the US is the dominant economic powerhouse of the world. Why would religiosity be so rampany here and not in other, relatively-less rich 1st world countries?
    My guess as to the answer: social support systems that soften the full brunt of economic hardship and its attendant anxieties and uncertainties.

    Their claim to the contrary was derived by only counting those inmates who successfully completed the program and went on to get jobs after being released, while ignoring those who did less well – in other words, the basic statistical fallacy of counting the hits and forgetting the misses.

    I’ll add another point. If you want your program to be a statistical success, establish the minimum criteria for staying in the program as, SUCCESS. I’ve heard that one of the ways to get (automatically?)kicked out of the program is to not meet its objectives. So, here you have the convenient mechanism of eliminating all your misses by definng them as “dropouts.”

    On the whole I think Xianity has done far more harm than good. But, it has done good through the encouragement of charitable giving to the poor. Many charities are religiously based. Again, the question was NOT “could we have gotten the results some other, possibly better, way?” (YES), but “What has Xianity done that was good?”

  • http://agnosticatheism.com AgnosticAtheist

    …above all else, seems to be what religion and Christianity specifically are good for – as a source of reassurance in troubled times.

    I agree. Pretty much most of what we call “religion” is the creation of man to help us quote with tragedy, death, and uncertainty. I remember a few years ago my daughter traveled to Europe. I prayed that God would keep her. At that moment I realized my prayer wasn’t really for her but for me. I needed that reassurance that she would be fine and it helped so much to know some big guy in the sky had her back since I could not be there for her.

    aA

  • Mobius 118

    While it is true, faith helps in rough times, it doesn’t fix the problem itself. “Hands that help are better than lips that pray”.

    In rough times, I work through the issue, paying no heed to my friends who say they’ll pray for me. Harsh? Yes, but it’s an affront to what they believe, and I’ve already made a promise to myself to shake people’s faith in God daily. Eventually, the pillar will crumble, and their god will fall and shatter, the destruction prompting the creation of something new.

    So, I’ve been told that Christianity has helped people through tough times, helped those who needed help through troubled waters, allowing them to overcome anything. I say this: It wasn’t god that helped you, it was you. You helped yourself, after your subconcious called you an idiot and did the fine tuning of your actions as you did them.

    Anyway, off to bed I go. I worked a hard midnight shift, and god had nothing to do with it.

  • Mark

    The security blanket reasoning makes much sense (though I don’t acknowledge it as the only thing Christianity is good for; the group interaction within the religion also yields fruit–it has a culture of its own, and there are always benefits associated with culture). I am immediately reminded of my paternal grandfather. When he prays before a meal, he asks God to “go with” so many friends and family members that I’m left virtually rolling my eyes, asking myself rhetorically when we get to start eating!

    If God were real and were like what my grandfather thinks he were like, I think God would help out those people even without being asked. So I conclude a few things directly, and one thing more indirectly.

    1. People pray for others to reassure themselves (most likely case).
    2. People pray for others in order to get closer to heaven (less likely case).
    3. People pray for others because they think God would not help those people otherwise (rather odd case).
    4. People pray for others because they think God has more reason to “go with” a person the more that person is cared for (and prayed for) by others (least likely case, I believe).

    None of these would seem very reasonable to Christians who pray as such, except maybe the first, and even then they’d acknowledge that prayer is good for the recognition of God via deference (a tame dog’s mentality toward its master). It very much appears to be entirely for the psychological benefit of the one doing the praying, no doubt about it.

  • http://blurper.blogspot.com/ Zeolite

    I agree with your conclusion, it makes me think of inner city gangs and how they are also coping mechanisms in an unhealthy environment.

  • http://atheisthussy.blogspot.com/ Intergalactic Hussy

    Great post. I can’t really think of an actual benefit.

    Christianity fills a psychological need as well as a sociological one

    Many people fear death and fear loneliness. With an afterlife, they don’t fear death as much and with god on one’s side, you’re never alone. What’s wrong with being alone?

    Just because something is comforting, doesn’t make it okay to propagate. Some people are weaker emotionally, and need to “believe in something” to get through their day.

  • http://prosthesis.blogspot.com macht

    Don’t you think that if you are going to cite the Gregory S. Paul study that you should at least mention the fact that there was a thorough debunking of the paper in the very next issue of the journal? The authors write, “It is the opinion of the authors that once all of the methodological issues are considered, Paul’s findings and conclusions are rendered ineffectual.”

  • http://prosthesis.blogspot.com macht

    And while I’m at it, here is a critique of the Paul/Zuckerman essay.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ John P

    With regard to all of these religion based programs, one would not expect the results (failure) any of them garnered, given the underlying basis of the programs. One would more likely expect overwhelming, incontrovertible success, given the fact that they all rely on supernatural help from an omniscient, omnipotent god. Even minor success should be deemed a failure with that kind of help.

    As for the study reported by Zuckerman, I’ve always felt that we, as a society, were on the cusp of actually overcoming our reliance on sky-daddies. The progress of science, the never-stopping forward advance of civilization, the tremendous explosion of Enlightenment research and thinking, (maybe not in the churches, but in academia) coupled with the supercharged ability of the Internet to disseminate information globally, leads me to only one conclusion – religion is doomed. It’s fighting a losing battle while in full retreat.

    I touched on this in a metaphorical post I titled Battle of the Bulge on my blog.

  • http://www.mysteryofiniquity.wordpress.com MOI

    Intergalactic Hussy,

    Oh I agree! Just because it may help, doesn’t mean we should teach it. Mobius is right. It wasn’t God that helped me. It was my own inner strength projected outward that helped me.

  • Polly

    @Spanish Inquisitor:
    An official study of the failures of faith-based programs could be compiled into a larger study providing pretty damning (no pun intended)evidence for the lack of a god.

    If G then B
    No B
    conclusion: No G

    Where G is god and B is a large reduction in recividivism, alcoholism, homosexuality :), or whatever problem the program is designed to counteract.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Macht: As far as I can tell, the paper you cited as “debunking” Paul’s study doesn’t point to any actual error in his findings or any fact he got wrong. Instead, it’s a lengthy recitation of reasons why conclusions like his might conceivably be incorrect due to errors that are impossible to rule out. That hardly constitutes a “debunking”.

  • http://prosthesis.blogspot.com macht

    The authors are actually pretty clear about the methodological problems with Paul’s paper.

    ” What one can state with certainty is that one cannot in any way be certain as to the effects of religiosity and secularism upon prosperous democracies at least as based upon the methods and data of Paul’s study.”

    And seeing as that is the whole point of Paul’s paper, I would call that a “debunking.”

  • Alex Weaver

    The question is, though…are any of those benefits specific to Christianity?

  • http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=Void890123 Void1

    convincing people to give you money? maybe? Sorry I’ve been absent for a while, I’ve been on holidays. Also, I think it might lead to greater social standing.

  • John Gathercole

    The Paul study is a total mess and was rightly retracted in the next issue. It was methodologically unfocused and seemed to function simply as a platform for Paul to attack the United States. This is the first part of his conclusion:

    “The United States’ deep social problems are all the more disturbing because the nation enjoys exceptional per capita wealth among the major western nations (Barro and McCleary; Kasman; PEW; UN Development Programme, 2000, 2004). Spending on health care is much higher as a portion of the GDP and per capita, by a factor of a third to two or more, than in any other developed democracy (UN Development Programme, 2000, 2004). The U.S. is therefore the least efficient western nation in terms of converting wealth into cultural and physical health.”

    Reminder: This is the CONCLUSION of a paper purporting to be about international religiosity. Why in the world is he talking about efficient health care? But the worst part of the paper is that, as Paul himself admits, he did not do any regressions and therefore no conclusions about significance can be drawn from his results. Yet, he clearly expects his non-study to be cited by atheists eager to attack religion, and it has been cited in this way on many atheist blogs, and now on Daylight Atheism as well. If we atheists put convenient evangelism above truth we are no better than fundamentalists.

  • The Vicar

    John Gathercole:

    One of the major benefits usually touted as a result of religion is the care of the poor and/or elderly. The U.S. has a lot of conspicuous religious people, and the highest spending on healthcare of any other developed democracy (I’ve seen it claimed “any other developed nation” but since I can’t say that there isn’t a monarchy or dictatorship or communist state somewhere that spends more I suppose I’ll go with the more cautious formulation used in the citation), but we still rank relatively low in terms of care to the poor and elderly, other than the elderly rich. In the past few decades, the more conspicuous religious people have actually been helping to cut programs to do that. That’s the connection, although really it’s more of a “well, religion can’t be doing that, then” than a “religion is wrong” point.

  • OhioAtheist

    Good post. I get tired of hearing that religion, irrational though it may be, is just too useful to criticize. I have no doubt that Christianity helps some people feel better about their lives, but that alone is not enough to get it entirely off the hook. Zoloft makes people feel better, but if its frequent side effects included mistrust of other sexual orientations, a tendency toward apocalyptic predictions, dogmatic acceptance of false beliefs, and a fervent desire to pass those same false beliefs onto one’s children, we would quite rightly regard it as a bad drug.

    As for the Paul study: As I understand it, all Paul was trying to show was a correlation between religiosity and various social maladies. Looking at the data, it certainly appears to me that he showed that correlation–though not causation. And this is strong evidence against the hypothesis that religion is good for society. Is there something I’m missing that invalidates the whole study?

  • PeterWR

    Hmm. Interesting term, that: “disbeliever”. Think it might catch on?

  • John Gathercole

    To The Vicar: I see the theoretical connection, but Paul’s paper does not even come close to establishing any such connection in reality.

    To OhioAtheist: There are several things that would each invalidate the study by itself. One thing is Paul’s selection of indicators of societal health. Ebonmuse should have a big problem with Paul’s indicators because happiness, or subjective well-being, is not among them. Isn’t the point of Universal Utilitarianism to maximize happiness, rather than reduce homicide or abortion rates? The difference is not trivial, because in terms of subjective well-being the US ranks above Sweden, France, Japan, Germany, Britain, and Australia.

    Another major problem that invalidates the study is Paul’s failure to do any regressions; to establish the influence (or lack of influence) of a single factor, confounding variables must be identified and controlled for. Paul has not done this. You say you know that correlation is not causation, but then go right on to say that “this is strong evidence against the hypothesis that religion is good for society,” a statement about causation! Nothing is evidence for anything unless other variables have been controlled for.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    It is incorrect to say that Paul’s paper was “retracted”. It was criticized by other authors, which is a very different thing. As far as the absence of regression analysis, I’m not qualified to comment on that, but I will point out that Paul’s paper explicitly argued for why he was not doing them:

    Regression analyses were not executed because of the high variability of degree of correlation, because potential causal factors for rates of societal function are complex, and because it is not the purpose of this initial study to definitively demonstrate a causal link between religion and social conditions. Nor were multivariate analyses used because they risk manipulating the data to produce errant or desired results, and because the fairly consistent characteristics of the sample automatically minimizes the need to correct for external multiple factors.

    Also, about this:

    This is the CONCLUSION of a paper purporting to be about international religiosity. Why in the world is he talking about efficient health care?

    I suggest you go back and read Paul’s paper more carefully. His thesis is that the absence of a social safety net causes stress and uncertainty in people which results in their turning to religion as reassurance.

  • OhioAtheist

    John Gathercole:

    You say you know that correlation is not causation, but then go right on to say that “this is strong evidence against the hypothesis that religion is good for society,” a statement about causation!

    It’s only a statement about causation insofar as I’m arguing that religion does not necessarily cause or contribute to societal well-being. This is demonstrated by the relatively greater social problems faced by the overwhelmingly more religious US, since, if religion was beneficial, more religious countries would have healthier societies. At the very least, Paul’s study shows that any benefits to society from religion are minor in that they can be easily overridden by other factors.

    I’m also curious on what grounds you say the United States’ subjective quality of life is higher than other Western democracies. Everything I’ve heard about “happiness surveys” suggests otherwise. Granted, I haven’t studied the subject in depth, which is precisely why I’m asking you.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I get guilty easily. I have to admit, there have been times when the forgiveness aspect of Christianity has looked somewhat tempting. More than that — I’ve found that it’s easier to forgive myself if I forgive others; that way my sense of fairness helps it along. When I figured that one out, the parallel with “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” was obvious. There is, I think, an extent to which Christianity tries to give you a pre-packed philosophy for dealing with life, it’s just that inevitably the doctrine starts to subsume the philosophy until it can become difficult to recognise.

    As a designated counsellor for the community, it seems to me that pastors have played an important role in societies over the years. I think the societal aspect of Christianity is probably the most important and useful. Of course, these things could just as easily be achieved without reference to the supernatural.

  • The Vicar

    Lynet:

    That claim is a bit problematic; in order to make it, you have to fall back on a very general category — “societal aspect” — which then engulfs other places where Christianity’s influence has not been benign. Just off the top of my head: Christianity justified the divine right of kings, it has served — in the form of late Calvinism — as a rationale for denying aid to those in need, it wiped out the history and culture of the native Americans — which the current ex-Hitler Youth Pope is proud to list as an accomplishment, it has led to the violent suppression of heretic groups, some of them arguably morally superior to the mainstream (see, for example, Sean Martin’s The Cathars: The Most Successful Heresy of the Middle Ages) and pogroms and anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant violence. And that’s to say nothing of the knock-on effects of overpopulation exacerbated by bans against abortion and birth control.

    Furthermore, the question as phrased is not “what has Christianity done which is positive,” which is impossible to answer for sure* but “what is Christianity good for” which implies a now. I posit that there is no direct, verifiable benefit that Christianity offers to the world which cannot be had elsewhere (sometimes much more effectively), and now that we are aware of this the only reason to remain Christian is belief not just in an afterlife but in the the specific rewards and punishments put forth as Christian doctrine.

    *One cannot be absolutely sure that Christianity has led to any specific benefit which would not have occurred anyway. It is true that in the west, the rise of Christianity accompanied certain widespread changes in philosophical and moral outlook, but nobody can be sure that these changes would not have occurred regardless; the same religion can produce completely opposite outlooks on life at the same time, so there is no guarantee that a revival of empathy, or virtue, or strict punishment, or whatever is actually caused by a religion. For example, consider the doctrines of extreme Calvinism and extreme Evangelism. History records many Calvinists saying, in brief, that god will save who he will save and there’s no point in trying to alter things, while there are also Evangelists who insist that salvation is available to all, on their own willingness to accept Christianity. Extrapolate on these two ideas — particularly if you allow the Calvinists to assume that god will show favor in material terms, as they have — and you arrive at very different worldviews. Well, it is possible that the changes in worldview were just Due To Happen at the time that Christianity arose, and would have occurred with justifications from the other religions of Europe. A sort of moral Steam Engine Time. Even if you don’t agree with this, it is impossible to prove that history, bereft of a Christian church, would not have been altered in ways which would have made it better than it has, in fact, been.

    Just as a side note on the topic of alternate histories: here’s something which I noticed a while ago. In physics, there is a concept known as “CPT Symmetry”. This is the notion that if you could reverse electrical charge and particle parity everywhere, then the laws of physics would describe a reversed flow of time. (That is, the universe played backwards would still “look” right if you also reversed charge and parity.)

    Now: as far as I know, there are very few events in history which have been dependent on, say, electrons being positive and not negative (as long as everything else is reversed as well). (Any physics majors out there? Correct me if I’m wrong!) If this is indeed true, it must then be the case that any uncertainty about the future must be exactly the same as the uncertainty about the past. So either the past is tremendously uncertain (and we cannot actually be sure of anything about history) or else the future is already more or less set, and one could actually write a set of predictions of the future which were as accurate about the future as a history book is about history.

    Take, as an example, the interval of half a century. We are reasonably certain about what happened half a century ago — there are very good visual, aural, and written records and people’s memories. Well, if CPT Symmetry really holds, then a perfect logician could determine with equal certainty the state of the world half a century from now, given sufficient information about the world (or, alternatively, making assumptions about the non-occurrance of rare events; say by assuming that no giant asteroids would wipe out all life on earth). There would be, visible to such a logician, the patterns which would lead to certain events. All the waffle about chaos theory (and the inability to make long-term predictions) only hold for iterative models, after all, and there is no proof that the universe itself is actually iterative.

    Creepy, or at least I think so. Suppose that in 2057 there is a nuclear war; in retrospect, any surviving historians will see nuclear war as inevitable given the world situation as I write this in 2007. And if the person who is responsible for the first launch is alive now, they are inevitably being made into someone who will be so incautious or so incapable of peaceful decision that they will launch nuclear weapons. Like I said: creepy. (Sorry to go off on such a tangent.)

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    That claim is a bit problematic; in order to make it, you have to fall back on a very general category — “societal aspect” — which then engulfs other places where Christianity’s influence has not been benign.

    Good point! I think, though, that religion has in the past played an important role in society — not as a political entity, just as a way of bringing people together to deal with aspects of life that have deep emotion attached, such as births and deaths, and the extent to which life has meaning, and questions of right and wrong, and so on. I know that religion isn’t perfect in those areas, but it filled what I do think was probably a real gap (although I admit we do seem to be managing without it quite well in some areas).

    Actually, I’ve never been religious, but I confess I’m rather fond of ritual — not because it does anything, but because it can express something.

    Any physics majors out there?

    Yup. :) My first degree was in mathematical physics, although these days I’m focusing on more standard applied maths.

    Now: as far as I know, there are very few events in history which have been dependent on, say, electrons being positive and not negative

    Well, apart from the weak interaction, as far as we know we have C symmetry and P symmetry and T symmetry. The weak interaction is just weird.

    It’s quite difficult to tell exactly how much of an effect that, say, beta decay has on history, so I’m not sure whether your statement is true or not.

    So either the past is tremendously uncertain (and we cannot actually be sure of anything about history) or else the future is already more or less set . . .

    Intriguing thought. I suspect the latter, although this issue is fraught with the perplexities of interpreting quantum mechanics. You do know that up until quantum mechanics hit the scene, people mostly assumed that the future was absolutely set?

    All the waffle about chaos theory (and the inability to make long-term predictions) only hold for iterative models, after all . . .

    No, you’re wrong there. Dynamical systems, which is the framework in which chaos theory is studied, focuses on both interative models and differential equations (periodic orbits in the latter can actually be studied quite well by considering the former, which is a fact as lovely as any in a subject I’m terribly fond of, but now and here is not the time and place to explain). Since our physical theories have been in differential equation form since Newton, and still basically are in differential equation form in a lot of cases, I don’t think it’s at all controversial to assume that chaos theory applies (Even if our theories change, they’ll still be able to be approximated by differential equations. How much do you want to bet it isn’t possible to prove that chaos theory still applies in that case?).

    No, I think chaos theory is the best way to understand the history/future dichotomy. We can record the things that were important to us about what happened in the past in a way that can easily be deciphered, but, while the present contains a lot of information about the future, extracting the information we want can be prohibitively difficult.

  • The Vicar

    (Sorry for the delay — I was busy until after this thread fell off the end of the “Recent Comments” list.)

    Lynet:

    Ah, but there you’re getting into the metaphysics of physics and math. Just because our models run on differential equations does not necessarily mean that the real world does. Basically, you ultimately run up against the question: does mathematics (within the discipline of physics) describe the universe so well because the universe is inherently mathematical, or does it describe the universe so well because it has been created specifically to do so? (Further question: do mathematical entites, such as the integers, “really” exist in some platonic sense, or are they merely whimwhams in the minds of humanity, basically just social constructs?) I don’t claim to have any expertise, but I recommend the book Pi in the Sky by John Barrow if you’re interested in the subject; it gives a lot of history and research.

    If you start to think about this deeply, you can end up with even more creepy ideas, which I can’t really describe without more sleep, and possibly not even then because I don’t have much of a vocabulary in that direction.

    Oh, and P.S.: people who knew about newtonian physics (which of course prevailed before quantum physics) believed the future was absolutely set. Before physics took on mathematical qualities, this was not actually a widespread belief; it’s the debate at the root of Calvinism, in one respect. (In fact, it took a while for people to accept the notion of inevitability when the implications of Newton’s Principia sank in.)

  • John Gathercole

    Ebonmuse wrote:

    “I suggest you go back and read Paul’s paper more carefully. His thesis is that the absence of a social safety net causes stress and uncertainty in people which results in their turning to religion as reassurance.”

    No, you are attributing to him a more reasonable thesis than he is really arguing. His actual thesis is that religion is not beneficial to social health. That’s why his paper’s review of the literature is titled “The Belief that Religiosity is Socially Beneficial.” None of the phrases “safety net,” “stress,” “uncertainty,” or “reassurance” even appear in the article. His paper is strictly focused on the effect of religiosity on social health.

    OhioAtheist: That people in US report higher levels of happiness than in most Western European countries is reported in many surveys, including the World Values Survey which I cited. The happiest country according to the WVS is Nigeria. The US ranks 16th, just below New Zealand but above Australia, Britain, and most of Europe.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Just because our models run on differential equations does not necessarily mean that the real world does.

    On the other hand, the fact that our models run on differential equations does mean that so do our predictions. So if we’re talking about the extent to which the future can be reasonably predicted…

    Oh, and P.S.: people who knew about newtonian physics (which of course prevailed before quantum physics) believed the future was absolutely set. Before physics took on mathematical qualities, this was not actually a widespread belief; it’s the debate at the root of Calvinism, in one respect. (In fact, it took a while for people to accept the notion of inevitability when the implications of Newton’s Principia sank in.)

    :P

    I knew that. I was just unduly focused on views arising from science, there. Pre-Renaissance? What pre-Renaissance? :)

  • The Vicar

    On the other hand, the fact that our models run on differential equations does mean that so do our predictions. So if we’re talking about the extent to which the future can be reasonably predicted…

    Ah, but what if (as one hypothetical) there’s a mathematical model out there, unimaginably complex from our perspective but still complete, which would produce a perfect match between prediction and reality, and our current physics are merely an approximation? We have already experienced such a change of perspective once, when quantum physics was confirmed to be more accurate than newtonian physics.

    For example: newtonian physics says that the range of possible distances at which a planet can have a stable orbit around a star is continuous; quantum physics says this is not true because the energy of a planet is quantized and can only change in discrete amounts, but when you do the math to pull out the set of possible answers in quantum physics, you get orbits which are separated by distances so small that, in essence, no measurement fine enough to detect them could be applied to an entire planet at once.

    Quantum physics says that the universe is characterized by what one can think of as a constant flood of random numbers; these govern behavior on the micro level, and the lack of randomness on the macro (i.e. visible) level is produced by the effects of probability applied to very large sample sizes. Well, what if the apparently random numbers are actually in a pattern, but the pattern is so large that it is beyond our grasp? It is technically possible that there is a pattern which explains the entire universe in a deterministic way, but that in order to record this pattern, even in the most basic form, one would require more storage than could be had by using every subatomic particle in the universe at once. (Remember, since these particles change over time there are far more random numbers than there are particles; it’s really a question of “is the shortest form of The Entire Datum Universe From Start To End actually The Entire Datum Universe From Start To End?”.)

  • Marco

    I´m a Christian.

    In short, Christianity gives life value. Why? Well, for you, it´s ok to kill a pre-born person, a fetus. For Christians, it isn´t. “well why should women be forced to have babies they can´t support?” You ask. Well, you are looking at a one sided stack. If a women doesn´t want to have a baby, well, she shouldn´t kill it, she should stop doing the thing that brings babies to this world. With me? The issue is that women don´t want to stop doing it, and still don´t want to have the babies, so in other words, they want to jump off a cliff, but don´t want to die at the bottom of the fall. Doesn´t seem logical.

    Atheism says “REVENGE”, “eye for an eye” so the whole world is blind. Christianity says “EVEN IF SOMEONE DID SOMETHING WRONG TO YOU, YOU HAVE TO RIGHT TO DO IT TO THEM” see the difference?

    What value does a human have according to Atheism? What right has the Congress to punish me behind bars for killing a person if we are worthless? Why don´t we inprison people who kill animals, since we have the same origin, thus the same value? Well, Christianity says that we are so valuable, Christ Died for our sins. Makes me feel like I´m worth something. Makes me be better persona, strugguliing to not affect human life.

    In the last article someone commented that christians don´t kill because we are afraid that God will punish us, instead of not doing it for the value and appreciation of human life. Well, there are certainly people who don´t believe in God that appreciate human life, but most don´t.

    It´s no different than not killing because you are afraid The law will put you in prison for it. how many people do think don´t kill because of fear of the law, even if they don´t believe in God? Many!!!! There are even some ads saying “if you do this or that, you´ll go to jail, think about you family and don´t do it”. Fear of God or Fear of Man, Which Do you choose?

    Quite frankly, if it´s only fear of man, I´m no worried about it, I´d go around destroyin everything. After all, Who is going to punish me? another persona? well, people are not perfect.

    Choose between the two: A relative world, where every crime is subject to opinion, where a persona can kill or not based on popular demand, such as killing with a shotgun (called murder) or killing with a lethal injection (called death sentence), which both, at the end of the day, have the same purpose?

    Or in a world where, yes, because of fear of God, but people don´t commit murder?

    Choose carefully, you may be saying that it´s ok for people to kill, even you, as long as they are not “deprived” of their right to choose.

    News for you, God exists, and You STILL have a right to choose, choose to kill or not, to believe or not, BUT IT DOESN´T CHANGE THE DESTINY OF THE PERSONA JUST BECAUSE HE OR SHE DOESN´T BELIEVE IN IT.

    Christianity gives life a value, gives you a purpose, a motive to live. The Bible Says “all you do, do it as if you are doing it for God himself, nad not for men”. So it motivates people to pursue excellence in everything we do. It encourages us to forgive, leave aside reproach, hate, and violence.

    There are many people who do terrible things in the name of God, but Jesus said “If you want to be a real follower, follow my commandments”. People who Do the opposite of God´s law in the name of God, aren´t real followers. The Old Testament Cites “Is God pleased in holocoust as much as He is pleased in obedience?”, the answer is no.

    God would much rather have his children obay and not kill, than kill for “his Glory”. That´s dumb.

  • OMGF

    Atheism says “REVENGE”, “eye for an eye” so the whole world is blind.

    Where in the world did you get this idea?

    What value does a human have according to Atheism?

    This is your only life, so you might want to live it instead of pining for the afterlife.

    What right has the Congress to punish me behind bars for killing a person if we are worthless?

    You have no empathy.

    Quite frankly, if it´s only fear of man, I´m no worried about it, I´d go around destroyin everything.

    How ironic that in your screed decrying us atheists for our morals that you would reveal yourself to be completely without them.

    Choose between the two: A relative world, where every crime is subject to opinion, where a persona can kill or not based on popular demand, such as killing with a shotgun (called murder) or killing with a lethal injection (called death sentence), which both, at the end of the day, have the same purpose?

    Actually, I’m against the death penalty as are many others here. Your god, however, is very much in favor of it.

    Christianity gives life a value, gives you a purpose, a motive to live.

    And that purpose is? AFAICT, that purpose is to stroke the ego of some powerful being and sucking up in the hope that you will get to be with him in the afterlife (which should make you want to exit this life ASAP) while being in constant fear of being tortured in hell for all eternity.

    God would much rather have his children obay and not kill, than kill for “his Glory”. That´s dumb.

    That’s funny you should say that, because that’s exactly what god has asked many people to do, kill others for “his glory.” I suggest you look up 1 Samuel 15.

  • Polly

    Marco,

    There are too many bizarre claims to count and OMGF has done a fine job. I”ll just add my two cents:

    Atheism says “REVENGE”, “eye for an eye” so the whole world is blind. Christianity says “EVEN IF SOMEONE DID SOMETHING WRONG TO YOU, YOU HAVE TO RIGHT TO DO IT TO THEM” see the difference?

    You are quoting the father of Jesus. These are Moses’s words in the Old Testament – speaking for god. Also, I know far more atheists who are against the death penalty than Christians.

    Well, there are certainly people who don´t believe in God that appreciate human life, but most don´t

    You made a very onerous claim that most atheists don’t appreciate human life. That is patently false! I think atheists value life, specifically THIS life, more than Christians because they know that this is all we have.

    I think you are overgeneralizing the abortion issue. Atheists are not all pro-choice and pro-choice is mainly based on the presupposition (based on fetal brain and nervous system development)that the fetus is not yet a human. They don’t advocate murder (as they see it).

    I think Christianity devalues life. We are all considered unworthy sinners who deserve nothing better than eternal pain in a fiery pit just for being who we are. Think about that:

    Do you like being called a miserable wretch?

    Do you like that you are eternally beholden to a god that imputes the sin of your ancestors to you through no fault of your own?

    Do you like being threatened with Hell?

    Will you enjoy the company of the same being who throws your unbelieving friends, family members, and neighbors into Hell?

    Do you like that god can do whatever he wants to you and those you love, inflict any misery at all, and it’s alright becuase A)he created you – you’re his property and B)You deserve worse anyway because it’s only by his mercy you’re even alive.

    Will you enjoy singing the praises of this vengeful god for all eternity as the fulfillment of your highest calling?

    I can’t think of anything more degrading.

  • http://kellygorski.blogspot.com Kelly

    Well said. Religion of any kind seems to be good for keeping the status quo and denying the populace the privilege of understanding how to think. It is this lack of critical thinking that is playing a major role in (and it may be the catalyst for) our modern-day violence.

  • Paul

    I think we’re confusing religion with totalitarianism here. Far from keeping the status quo, Christ’s message of “Love God and love your neighbour” has the power to transform us as individuals as well as our societies. His call to “love our enemies” must be the most admired but least practised line in history. It does not lead to violence but peace. Modern-day violence is no different from all violence in that it stems ultimately from man’s selfishness and disregard of his neighbour.

    This does not excuse religious authorities of any persuasion when they have misused or misapplied their core beliefs.

  • OMGF

    Paul,
    Apart from neighbor probably only referring to other Jews, that you can cherry pick a few lines out of the Bible out of context to try to make your point is a poor way to go about this. You have to neglect all the other attrocities and the direct commands from god to commit attrocities in order to claim that the Bible leads to peace.

  • Paul

    @ OMGF
    Well the Good Samaritan wasn’t a Jew, nor the woman at the well, nor the thousands of early ‘gentile’ converts. I am quite clear that my ‘neighbour’ is my fellow human being. And Jesus’ commands “Love God and love your neighbour” were described by him as the most important commandments, summarising all the Old Testament. That’s the context.

    Whilst it’s true that the OT recounts graphically some quite horrific battles in Jewish history, AFAIK nowhere in the Bible is there a general command to us to commit atrocities. In company I hope with all committed Christians I believe we are called to be peacemakers. HTH.

  • OMGF

    @ Paul,
    Converts, eh? Yeah, it’s always good to be nice to people who you can convert. That Xians adopted “neighbor” to mean other Xians is not surprising in the least.

    That he said they are the most important doesn’t change the fact that he also said that all the old commandments should still be followed, and he was pretty strict about them. Those old commandments include stoning children for being disobedient to their parents. Funny how you don’t seem to remember that part.

    And, your rememberence of the OT is pretty bad. Read Deuteronomy 13 for instance. And, nowhere are Xians called to be peacemakers. Whatever gave you that idea? Jesus himself says that he comes not to bring peace but with a sword, or some such nonsense.

  • Paul

    @ OMGF
    There’s really no need for sarcasm or personal attacks.

    Your line of argument has switched from neighbour=Jew to neighbour=Christian; neither is right from a Christian point of view. We use neighbour in the widest sense.

    Actually Jesus was highly critical of the Pharisees who were very legalistic and was in turn criticised for e.g. healing on the Sabbath. Also he saved the prostitute from being stoned. I am happy to have an open-minded discussion about OT laws and sentencing separately. But it takes a real stretch of interpretation to suggest that Jesus supported the stoning of children. I don’t think many Christians believe that!

    Your reference to peace and a sword appears to me to be about judgement, not an exhortation for us to commit violence.

    For references to why I think we’re called to be peacemakers, see Mt 5:9 and Jas 3:18. I think that’s a good thing, don’t you?

  • OMGF

    @Paul,
    I fail to see any personal attacks. If you don’t want me to attack your arguments, then don’t make bad arguments.

    Your line of argument has switched from neighbour=Jew to neighbour=Christian; neither is right from a Christian point of view. We use neighbour in the widest sense.

    Jesus used it as the Jews used it, to mean other Jews. Xians co-opted the idea. You haven’t found some sort of gotcha moment. That you misinterpret now doesn’t mean that was the intent.

    Actually Jesus was highly critical of the Pharisees who were very legalistic and was in turn criticised for e.g. healing on the Sabbath.

    Yeah, there are lots of contradictions. Jesus was very strict about the laws when it suited the author’s purpose and not when it didn’t.

    Also he saved the prostitute from being stoned.

    You didn’t know? That story is made up. It’s not original to the author. It was included much later.

    But it takes a real stretch of interpretation to suggest that Jesus supported the stoning of children. I don’t think many Christians believe that!

    That most Xians are ignorant of their own scriptures doesn’t change what is in them. Try Matt 15:3-7 and Mark 7:9-13.

    Your reference to peace and a sword appears to me to be about judgement, not an exhortation for us to commit violence.

    It wasn’t meant to. It was a response to your comment about Xians being called to be peacemakers.

    For references to why I think we’re called to be peacemakers, see Mt 5:9 and Jas 3:18. I think that’s a good thing, don’t you?

    I never said that the Bible doesn’t have some good things in it. Do unto others is in the Bible, for instance. To think that the Bible is a book about being good, however, is in error. One can only come to that conclusion if one ignores vast tracts of the book. Blessed are the peacemakers? Well, blessed are the mourners too, but Xians are supposed to be happy, aren’t they? Blessed are the poor in spirit? That doesn’t make sense. Peacemakers who sow a harvest in peace will burn in hell if that is not what god chooses to have them do at that point in time.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Whilst it’s true that the OT recounts graphically some quite horrific battles in Jewish history, AFAIK nowhere in the Bible is there a general command to us to commit atrocities.

    Deuteronomy 13:6-10:

    If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods… thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him. But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

    That is one example of literally dozens I could cite, some even more graphic and horrific, and all of them commanded or endorsed by God. For more examples, see my essay “A Book of Blood“.

  • Christian

    The orgional question
    Eternal life in Heaven is usually held out as the greatest benefit of becoming a Christian, but that reward is said to be in the next life and is impossible for us to verify. Does Christianity have any benefits in this life, any evidence that can be offered now as partial substantiation of its grander promises later on?

    The apostle Paul himself states that if the benefits of what is to come in the afterlife (the resurrection of the dead and eternal union with God) is not a fact then the Christian faith as well all other religions are just as many have said “the opiate of the masses” and a waste of time
    Many of the societal benefits of Christianity can be obtained in other ways but there are some very wonderful benefits to being part of a good church or community of fellow believers, which will function as an extended family. One example is that many of the young ladies in my church have sacrificed their time to give my wife and I free babysitting out of a desire to server and care for us.

    I have included a couple of verses from Paul to help support the point
    In Romans 18
    For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

    And in 1 Corinthians 15
    12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

    The

  • Alex Weaver

    The apostle Paul himself states that if the benefits of what is to come in the afterlife (the resurrection of the dead and eternal union with God) is not a fact then the Christian faith as well all other religions are just as many have said “the opiate of the masses” and a waste of time

    It seems we’ve found some common ground.

    Many of the societal benefits of Christianity can be obtained in other ways but there are some very wonderful benefits to being part of a good church or community of fellow believers, which will function as an extended family. One example is that many of the young ladies in my church have sacrificed their time to give my wife and I free babysitting out of a desire to server and care for us.

    All of the benefits of community and altruism can be obtained in other contexts, many of which do not have the insular, xenophobic nature of many Christian churches (particularly the fundamentalist ones) or the habits of insisting their followers accept the official views on how to vote, what to think on certain topics, how to conduct themselves with regard to their own private lives, etc. In addition, when these organizations expect donations of money and time, they are almost always direct and up-front about it. I’m not sure why you think this gets churches points.

    As for citing Bible verses, why would you expect that to be persuasive to people who don’t believe the Bible is anything more than a book created by fallible humans for human reasons?