Pointless Parables

Pointless Parables August 9, 2013

I like some of the parables in the New Testament. The parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, for example, give good examples of the right path and add to the moral vocabulary of civilization.

Lately, however, I’ve come across a few modern apologetic parables that fall far short of those in the Bible. Let me start with a tediously long story making a very small point. (I’ve abbreviated all the parables here. You’re welcome!)

“The Blind Faith of Atheism”

An atheist professor was harassing his Christian students about their God belief, so they challenge him to a debate. The arrogant professor agrees, thinking he could shut down this God thing once and for all.

The atheist’s opening remark likens God belief to Santa Claus belief. We give up one when we grow up; why not both?

The Christian debater goes through a long process of arguing that the atheist doesn’t know everything, to which the atheist agrees. And now he releases the snare: isn’t it possible that evidence of God could exist in that huge fraction of all knowledge that the atheist doesn’t understand? “Have you been to South Yemen?” the Christian asks. “Maybe God is in South Yemen.”

The debate isn’t going his way, so the atheist complains that the debate isn’t fair.

The Christian pushes his point and gets the atheist, now meek and whiney, to admit that the claim “There is no God” is indefensible and that the atheist’s claim is actually a faith position. A little more back and forth, and the atheist slinks away, publicly humiliated.

This is rather like the Chick tract in which the nasty Biology professor gets shredded and then converted by a calm and polite Christian.

So the moral is: don’t say, “God absolutely, for sure doesn’t exist.” Got it. I never have.

In the first place, very few atheists are certain that there is no God. They would say instead that they have no God belief, just like the Christian has no Poseidon belief. We follow the evidence and say that the evidence points more to not-God than God.

Second, “there is no God” is a faith position just like “there are no unicorns” is—that is, not at all. Could unicorns exist? It’s possible, but the evidence strongly argues that they don’t. We don’t have faith that unicorns don’t exist; we trust that they don’t because we have evidence that they don’t. In the same way, belief in God is a faith position, but following the facts where they point (and tentatively concluding that God is in the same bin as Zeus, Shiva, and the other gods from history) is a trust position.

Here’s story #2.

“A Man and His Barber”

As the barber trims a customer’s hair, he says that he doesn’t believe in God. He points to the problem of evil—why would there be so much pain and suffering in the world if God existed?

Wanting to avoid antagonizing the man who had his coiffure in his hands, the Christian customer doesn’t engage in the argument, but after leaving the shop, he sees a man with a scruffy beard and long unkempt hair. He returns to the barber shop and says, “I just realized something—barbers don’t exist either.”

“But I just cut your hair!” the barber replies.

“If barbers existed, there would be no one with long hair, like the man I just saw.”

“Don’t blame me if they don’t come to me.”

“Exactly!” the Christian replies. “And we can’t blame God if we don’t go to him. He exists; the problem with pain and suffering is that people don’t seek God.”

Huh? But Christians do go to God. How does that help the pain and suffering in the world? How does that remove pain and suffering from just the lives of Christians? How does that undo the damage from tornadoes or tsunamis? Praying to a God, even one who’s not there, can bring comfort, I’ll admit, but that’s no evidence in favor of the Christian’s claim, that God exists.

Finally, a well-made video from the Macedonian Ministry of Education and Science.

“Does God Exist?”

The video opens with a schoolboy running into school. The time period looks to be about 1900.

The teacher at the front of the room speaks in German, with English subtitles. He declares that if God exists then he is evil. If he created everything, then he created evil, right?

Our schoolboy protagonist stands to challenge this. “Professor, does cold exist?”

“Of course it does.”

“No, sir, cold doesn’t exist. Heat exists, and cold is merely the absence of heat. Professor, does darkness exist?”

“Of course.”

“No, sir. Darkness doesn’t exist. It is merely the absence of light. In the same way, evil doesn’t exist. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love in his heart.”

At the end, we see the name of this precocious schoolboy: Albert Einstein. We’re left with the tagline: “Religion is knowledge too. Bring religion back to school.”

With a tagline like that on a government video, I guess there’s not much separation of church and state here. And a Macedonian ministry puts together a German video with English subtitles? Why not Macedonian subtitles? What possible goal of theirs could this serve?

Putting aside this mystery, this isn’t an honest portrayal of Einstein’s religious beliefs, at least not in his later life.

And the professor knew his Bible better than little Albert. God did indeed create evil.

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)

Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come? (Lamentations 3:38)

We can quibble about whether evil is something or the absence of something, but the final statement, that evil is the result of not having God’s love, is simply an assertion without evidence. Unconvincing.

Is it me, or have Christian parables gone downhill?

If people are good
only because they fear punishment,
and hope for reward,
then we are a sorry lot indeed.
— Albert Einstein

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 12/2/11.)

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  • indorri

    Darkness doesn’t exist.


    • TheNuszAbides

      “she said, ‘dark isn’t the opposite of light – it’s the absence of light.’ and i said to myself, ‘she knows what she’s talking about.’ and for a minute i knew what it was all about.”

  • GubbaBumpkin

    “No, sir, cold doesn’t exist. Heat exists, and cold is merely the absence of heat.

    This is idiotic. So cold is the absence of heat. Does the absence of heat exist? Of course it bleeping does.

    • Yeah, but Einstein said it. Bam.

    • indorri

      The idea is supposed to be “there’s nothing you can put into a system to make it colder, a system becomes colder by losing energy”.

      This, of course, breaks down once you realize you’re trying to compare a quantifiable property of matter with an arbitrary state of things that are labelled based on the motivation of the labeller and the entire “evil is the absence of good” bollocks is an ad-hoc attempt to rebut a killer argument.

      • Machintelligence

        Ah, so that’s why it takes more hot water to make cold water warm than it takes cold water to make hot water warm.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Is it me, or have Christian parables gone downhill?

    The parable of the Unjust Steward started at the bottom of the hill. The only moral message I can get from it is: If you are going to fire someone with an important job in your organization, fire them immediately, don’t give them two weeks notice.

    • kagekiri

      Oh yeah, that one’s bad. Also pretty terrible is the parable of the debtor.

      The king (ostensibly God) forgives his servant of his extensive debts because he can’t pay, but the servant chases down a person who owes the servant and refuses to forgive that smaller debt. The king finds out and punishes the servant horribly for this hypocrisy.

      Then you realize that God doesn’t actually do what the king does. He doesn’t forgive the sins without payment: he required blood sacrifice through Jesus. So he’s actually far worse at forgiving than he expects us to be…

      Ooh, or the parable of the sowed seeds. Basically, seeds are screwed depending on where the soil condition where they land, and most get destroyed. The Bible doesn’t even really make it sound like the seeds were choosing to fail, but says their environments screwed them from the get go. Which makes the sower (God) quite a heartless and irresponsible jerk, who condemns people to Hell for the ultimately impossible situations that he put them in, ignoring their free will.

      The parable of the wedding reception, where the king gets angry that people are rejecting his invitation, and killing his messengers, so he kills everyone who rejected his invitation and invites people who weren’t originally invited…God (the king, again) seems pretty unhinged. The parable is basically a threat against Jewish people who reject Christ, as far as I can read. “Cross God and die”.

      • Nice critique. Also consider the parable of the sheep and the goats. The message is clear: you are judged by your works. No mention of faith is mentioned.

      • Speedwell

        Who needs parables? The fig tree Jesus cursed because he looked for figs on it even though “it was not the season for figs” is the example that I use to make Christians writhe in discomfort. Jesus reportedly pulled that stunt in person. I have had to resort to carrying photocopies of the Bible pages to prove that the quoted passage is actually in there.

        • I wonder what Christians says is the moral of that story.

        • Ron

          God hates figs. 🙂

        • Greg G.

          I’ve used my smartphone to prove to believers what the Bible actally says.

    • Guest

      http://www.thebricktestament.com/the_gospels/parable_of_the_harsh_master/lk19_11.html The parable of the harsh master. Causes trouble for Christians to interpret. On the face of it, God seems like a dick in this one. And then there’s this one, which basically says that as a Christian you will never be good enough, no matter what you do, and you should never expect any thanks from god: 7 “Suppose
      one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he
      say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and
      sit down to eat’? 8 Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So
      you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should
      say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

  • Richard Hollis

    You pointed to the Prodigal Son as a parable with a good message. I’ve always taken issue with this. The younger son is faithful and dutiful and receives exactly the same reward as his irresponsible, hedonistic, spendthrift (if ultimately repentant) older brother.

    Isn’t the message here that duty, loyalty and obedience go ultimately unrewarded? That reckless hedonism is the sensible path? (Granted I’m sure many would actually agree with this, but being an honest-day’s-pay-for-an-honest-day’s-work kinda guy this still grinds my gears.)

    • kagekiri

      Yeah, it’s kinda like the parable of the vineyard and workers, where every worker works different amounts, having been hired at different points in a day, but the owner of the vineyard pays them all the same amount, because it’s his money and his property being worked on.

      The metaphor is usually assumed to be God rewarding people with equal pay (heaven), even if some people were faithful all their lives, while others have deathbed conversions and never suffer or even really live out their faith.

      Which again says: convert late, there’s no penalty!

      Edit: oh yeah, and it shows how anti-capitalistic God is, which makes the “Christian Nation” narrative for the US extra silly.

    • Dudley

      Well no, because the dutiful guy had a happy, healthy life and probably lots of savings, while the prodigal son lost all his money, spent some time in the gutter and had to humiliate himself by going home. When their dad dies, he’ll be screwed.

    • I’m just focused on one aspect: the generous nature of the father. Yes, that the hardworking brother winds up as the insensitive jerk in the story doesn’t work for me.

  • YesDavisIsMyFirstName

    “Jesus uses parables on disciples! Disciples is now confused!
    Disciples hurt itself in its confusion!”

  • Guest

    I am pretty sure there is no god, because of the second law of thermodynamics. Nothing is eternal, systems tend towards entropy. So nothing isv eternal, including God’s life and Heaven.

    The idea that evil doesn’t exist is bollocks. A lot of evil requires actually doing something, positive acts (in the sense that you have to actually spend energy). Torture is not simply an absence of kindness, it’s the active infliction of pain. Hate is not a lack of love, but another positive emotion, in terms of it’s effect on the nervous system and the way it ramps up your heart rate.
    Now, it’s true that indifference can be evil, like if you neglect your pet and it dies or if you walk past a homeless guy when you have some spare change, but not all evil is the absence of something, it’s the presence of a desire to hurt and exploit other people. If people were either loving or indifferent, the world would be better than it is now.
    And I bet Einstein never said any of those things. What a pack of lies!

  • Carol

    Ahhh, if it were only the parables that have gone downhill:


    In a rare interview in 1967 with Thomas McDonnell, [Thomas] Merton pronounced that the great crisis in the church is a crisis of authority precipitated because the church, as institution and organization, has overshadowed the reality of the church as a community of persons united in love and in Christ. He now charged that obedience and conformity with the impersonal corporation-church are a fact in the life of Christians. “The Church is preached as a communion, but is run in fact as a collectivity, and even as a totalitarian collectivity. ~ George Kilcourse, ACE OF FREEDOMS: Thomas Merton’s Christ

    • GubbaBumpkin

      So he want “The Church” to be something like a democracy. That is incompatible with the history and core concepts of Christianity.
      If one person is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why should other person in the organization except this one person be given a vote?
      The there’s Jesus H. Christ’s speech to St. Peter: “what you bind on Earth shall be bound in Heaven.” Wowza. What if Peter gets outvoted in a conference?

      • Carol

        Cardinal Newman said there were three authorities in the Church: the authority of tradition, the authority of reason and the
        authority of experience, which he placed respectively in the hierarchy, the university and the body of the faithful.

        He added that if one of these three became too dominant, the right exercise of authority in the Church risked being compromised.
        Each needs to be strong; for example, the theological faculties have their authority. Charismatic movements, for example, easily tend to give too much authority to experience. There have been moments when reason appeared to be absolutized, as in some countries in eighteenth-century Europe. Today, I think that some groups within the Church give too exclusive a stress to tradition, to the detriment of reason and experience. —Timothy Radcliffe, OP

        “Reforming Church governance is not about shared power but about mutual empowerment in the Holy Spirit.” –Fr. Patrick Collins, from his essay on “Thomas Merton on Ecclesial Reform and Renewal” in Commentary.

        First-hand religion is based on direct experience of the sacred, also called mystical experience. Second-hand religion is based on another’s experience, authority, or dogma. This distinction is
        often framed as the difference between spirituality (first-hand) and religion (second-hand). –John Davis

        The faith that stands on authority is not faith. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

        • Greg G.

          Carol, excellent quotes, as usual.

        • GubbaBumpkin

          So a Catholic has a choice between believing any of those fine gentlemen, or Jesus H. Christ.

        • (I’ve wondered what the H. stood for …)

        • Greg G.

          Hitchens, believe it or not.

        • Yet more proof that the Man Upstairs likes a good joke. I think that’s why He made Young-Earth Creationists.

        • Machintelligence


        • Carol

          There is a “freedom of conscience clause” in the Vatican Council II Document Dignitatis Humanae. Of course, the Roman Curia (Vatican bureaucrats) are hell-bent on keeping it from being exercised:


          1. A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man,(1) and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society. This Vatican Council takes careful note of these desires in the minds of men. It proposes to declare them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice. To this end, it searches into the sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church-the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old.

          “Core moral concepts, such as freedom, conscience, obedience, and fidelity, can have very different meanings and importance. These differing meanings depend on if our concern is with conformity, fulfilling norms, and subordination, or instead if our focus is radical thinking infused with the spirit of God blowing as it wills and marked by grown-up, freely affirmed responsibility.” –Bernard Haering, The Virtues of an Authentic Life (1997),
          p. 53.

        • Carol

          “The times they are a-changing”:


        • I realize that the priest sex scandal is an enormous issue spread over decades, so perhaps I’m not taking in the big picture. Still, it surprises me that a Catholic bureaucrat would focus on the good of the institution over the good of the person. In a company, perhaps that’s the way it would logically work, but this is the Christian church. Aren’t these people supposed to see things from a more noble standpoint? Wouldn’t what’s best for the individual Christian be paramount?

          — Mr. Naïve

  • busterggi

    Aesop told more, better & clearer meaning stories. Jesus was a wanna be.

  • Greg G.

    I once carelessly connected an LED (light-emitting-diode) to ground instead of to a current limiting resistor. As soon as power was applied, it became a DED (dark-emitting-diode).

  • Greg G.

    The “evil is the absence of god’s love” idea can be turned on its head and correspond to the heat and light analogies. Good is the absence of God’s wrath. Good is the natural state and evil is god on a drinking binge. Evil things happen to people who love god, so this analogy works better than the example.

    • I hadn’t seen that. Nice turnaround.

    • smrnda

      God’s love doesn’t seem so warm and fuzzy – maybe things might be better if god minded his own business. How much conflict happens just because some people seem to be worshiping the wrong god, or worshiping the right god the wrong way?

  • Ron

    The story about God being there with the victims of 9/11 during their final moments (item 10 on the page that links to story 2) sounds pretty twisted.

    You say you will never forget where you were when you heard the news On September 11, 2001. Neither will I.

    I was on the 110th floor in a smoke filled room with a man who called his wife to say “Good-bye”.
    I held his fingers steady as he dialed.
    I gave him the peace to say, “Honey, I am not going to make it, but it is OK… I am ready to go.”

    I was with his wife when he called as she fed breakfast to their children. I held her up as she tried to understand his words and as she realized he really wasn’t coming home that night.

    I was in the stairwell of the 23rd floor when a woman cried out to Me for help, for the very first time in her life.
    “I have been knocking on the door of your heart for 50 years!” I said. “Of course I will show you the way home – only believe in Me now.”

    I was at the base of the building with the Priest ministering to the injured and devastated souls.
    I took him home to tend to his Flock in Heaven.
    He heard my voice and answered.

    I was on all four of those planes, in every seat, with every prayer. I was with the crew as they were overtaken.
    I was in the very hearts of the believers there, comforting and assuring them that their faith has saved them.

    I was in Texas, Kansas, London… I was everywhere.
    I was standing next to you when you heard the terrible news.
    Did you sense Me?

    I want you to know that I saw every face.
    I knew every name – though not all know Me.
    Some met Me for the first time on the 86th floor.
    Some sought Me with their very last breath.
    Some couldn’t hear Me calling to them through the smoke and flames; “Come to Me… this way … take my hand.” Some had never heard my voice before. And a few chose, for ! the final time, to ignore Me.

    But, I was there.

    I did not place you in the Tower that day. You may not know why, but I do. However, if you were there in that explosive moment in time, would you have reached for Me?

    September 11, 2001 was not the end of the journey for you.
    But someday your journey will end.
    And I will be there for you as well.
    Seek Me now while I may be found.
    Then, at any moment, you know you are “ready to go”

    …I will be in the stairwell of your final moments.


    • That is pretty messed up. Their lifeboat taking on water in the storm, the Christian is determined to not give up his worldview. Not realize that the water actually isn’t that deep, and he can wade to shore. He’ll defend his nonexistent god and ignore the irony when that “omnipotent” god won’t do it himself.

    • trj

      Sounds plausible. As usual God watches instead of rescuing people. He really isn’t much use in a crisis, is he?

  • smrnda

    The problem with analogies is that sometimes things aren’t analogous. The barber one was the worst – people *do* go to god to solve problems, and most often get no results. If people went to barbershops and walked out with long beards and long hair, then we might conclude there were no barbers.

  • Winking Demon

    There is a positive side to the story of a father so besotted with a wayward son that he mortgages his farm so that the wastrel can briefly live high? Borrowing against the farm to give the lout his half of the farm risked poverty and the loss of the land. The fool father even throws an expensive party, alienating his dutiful son, whose life is also at risk due to his father’s weakness and his brother’s dissolute life. What positive message can be found? The lout is still a lout, the father-fool still wears the dunce-cap, and the hard-working son is alienated and justly angry. Happy days?

    • Kodie

      The moral of the story is that hard-working people are always jealous of people for whom the good life comes easy; deal with it!

    • That’s all true. The positive aspect for me is that even when seriously harmed, the father still forgives.

      If only God in the gospel story took that lesson to heart.

      • Winking Demon

        You can cut the parable conveniently at forgiveness, but what of the second son, his inheritance halved, not appreciated by his father, and *not* even invited to the party. Pulpits resound with the forgiveness motif, but they should read the story to its end. The second son isn’t forgiving, but he has to carry the burden.

        I think the main point of this story, like many of the parables, is to mock the central or senior character. The storyteller says, in effect, “See this fool who favors his wastrel son over the honest one? The father is sending them all to ruin by foolishly doting on the lout.” No moral that I can see–the father has his favored son back and forgive him without the party.

        Among other examples of senior characters gone soft in the head: the doltish farmer who wants let the weeds grow to maturity in his fields, the crazy landlord who sends his son to plead with known murderers in his vineyard, and the guy who is so repulsive that he can’t get his “friends” to come to his house for a big banquet.

        • The OT also has lots of these overturn-convention stories. Esau is supposed to get the inheritance but Jacob steals it.
          If your point is that the story as a whole is crap, that’s fine.

          What I’d prefer to do is extract the only possible gem–that the loving father forgives even when he perhaps oughtn’t–and ask the Christian to explain why God is too petty to follow this example.

          One time when I did this, I was told that the point of the story isn’t that you need to forgive; rather, it’s that you need to ask to be forgiven (like we sinners need to ask Jeebus). Wow.

        • Winking Demon

          I don’t think the story is worthless, but I think that Christians are determined to find a moral that they can like in it, rather than reading what is on the page. My reading of the story is that a man fawns on one unworthy son and will do anything for him, but ignores the steadfast virtue of the other. I read into the story more than that, but it’s not necessary for my point. As written, the story can be read as instruction–presumably “Don’t do this.” It can also be read as allegory. For example, if there were a critic of his society who did not want to directly confront authority, but wanted to say “Those in authority
          behave like fools, squandering our collective wealth on parties for the unworthy, but ignoring those who add value to our society,” he or she might tell such a story, perhaps softening it with humor about the unworthy son eating pig’s food, and characterizing the authority figure as over-the-top in celebrating the return of the miscreant.

          The repetition of a similar theme through many parables
          enforces the above allegorical reading, but there are probably others.

  • Machintelligence

    A skeptic’s parable:
    A mountain climber was foolishly doing a solo climb when one of his anchors pulled loose and he fell until the other anchor stopped his fall. His remaining rope was not long enough to lower him to a safe place and he had injured a shoulder, and so could not climb the rope. In desperation he called out: Help! Is there anybody who can help me?
    Suddenly the clouds parted and a golden light illuminated everything. A mighty voice said: I CAN HELP YOU! TAKE OUT YOUR KNIFE AND CUT THE ROPE!
    So he took out his knife and looked at the rope. Then he looked down and looked at the knife again. Then he yelled: Is there anybody else who can help me?

    • That sounds like the same voice that told Andrea Yates to drown her 5 kids.

    • Greg G.

      Two men survived a plane crash in the deep, dark jungle. One guy says “We’re screwed”.

      A booming voice said, “YOU’RE NOT SCREWED. WALK NORTH.”

      They did until they found themselves surrounded by men with spears. One guy says, “We’re screwed.”


      Both men acted simultaneously.

      The voice said, “NOW YOU’RE SCREWED!”

  • Ryan Jean

    Second, “there is no God” is a faith position just like “there are no unicorns” is—that is, not at all. Could unicorns exist? It’s possible, but the evidence strongly argues that they don’t. We don’t have faith that unicorns don’t exist; we trust that they don’t because we have evidence that they don’t.

    This is probably a good spot to point out that the whole “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” argument trotted out by believers is bull. AofE most definitely can be EofA whenever one would reasonably expect certain evidence if the proposition were true. The absence of clear and compelling evidence for unicorns, faeries, bigfoot, chupacabra, and any god other than the most watered-down hands-off deism, is evidence of absence specifically because even if we couldn’t detect any of those things directly, we would expect tons of measurable and discernible effects on the world around us.

    • MNb

      Imo the unicorn comparison is rather weak, as the unicorn is supposed to be a material being and god usually not. That means that there is no evidence for god by definition. S AofE doesn’t apply at all.

      • If God just stayed up in heaven watching TV, that’d be true, but God is supposed to have some impact on the world when he dips his toe into our reality, right?

      • MNb

        You know my answer on that one – how does that impact take place? How does an immaterial being dip his/her/its toes into our reality without having material means available? That’s the problem with theism – you keep on running in circles.
        Point is: as soon as you compare a unicorn with god you assume the latter has some material aspects.

        • MNb

          Like toes.

        • But we’re just making stuff up here, right? Why not imagine that supernatural being can hang out in their supernatural dimension or realm but that they can become material and act in our world if they want to. You seem to imagine some logical impossibility, but I’m not seeing it.

  • GCBill

    Defining evil as an absence of good doesn’t really get you out of the objection. It’s like a musician who has the potential to create the best music ever heard, but instead choose to compose deeply flawed songs instead. The question then becomes “Okay, so why is _____ wasting his/her potential to create something maximally good?” When applied to God, I don’t think this question is any easier than the old one.

    • Presumably the Christian says that deeply flawed music has no point (except maybe as a counterexample), but bad in the world helps shape us.

      Of course, that’s what they’d say if there were no god, and they were just trying to rationalize the evidence to support their preconception.

  • TheNuszAbides

    so there will always be Necessary Suffering, maybe only until Everybody Praises God For Being So All-Everything-Ever, or at MOST until Da Rapture. got it.