August 2, 2019

Let’s conclude our critique of Eric Hyde’s analysis of atheist arguments, “Top 10 Most Common Atheist Arguments, and Why They Fail.” (Begin with part 1 here.)

“8. History is full of mother-child messiah cults, trinity godheads, and the like. Thus the Christian story is a myth like the rest.”

There’s a lot of straw-manning with the formulation of this and other arguments. I’ve never heard an atheist talk about supernatural story elements seen in other mythologies and then conclude that, because Christianity has them too, it must be a myth. Rather, we conclude that Christianity springing from a culture suffused with stories of dying-and-rising gods, virgin births, and other miracles suggests that Christianity is no more historically accurate than they are. Remember that Palestine was at the crossroads of Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome. The early Christian authors would be quite familiar with the supernatural tales from surrounding lands.

A counterfeit coin does not prove the non-existence of the authentic coin, it proves the exact opposite.

Counterfeits always follow the real thing. The resurrection of Jesus followed the resurrection of Dionysus. Any questions? (More here and here.)

At this point in the argument, other apologists usually yield as little as possible and emphasize the differences between the Jesus resurrection and the rebirth of Dionysus, the Jesus virgin birth story and the godly parentage of Alexander the Great, and so on. (Of course the stories are different! If the Jesus story were identical to that of Dionysus, we’d call him “Dionysus.”) But Hyde admits that many of the supernatural story elements are common.

It seems only natural that if the advent of Christ was real it would permeate through the consciousness of mankind on some level regardless of their place in history. One should expect to find mankind replicating these stories, found in their own visions and dreams, again and again throughout history. And indeed, that is what we find.

Is he declaring that all roads lead to God? When a Hindu is told something by Krishna in a dream, that was actually the Christian god?

He imagines that the key elements of the Jesus story magically suffused through cultures, long before the Christian era. That’s a rather desperate attempt to salvage the story, and I’d like to see some evidence for this. But why grope for a supernatural explanation when the natural one leaves nothing unaddressed: Christianity broke away as a new religion just like countless others do, and it took on elements of the surrounding culture. Remember that the entire New Testament was written in Greek, and it couldn’t help but take on elements of the wider culture as it was passed orally for decades in Greek culture before being written down as the gospels.

“9. The God of the Bible is evil. A God who allows so much suffering and death can be nothing but evil.”

This is the Problem of Evil, and Hyde agrees that it’s a powerful argument. He responds with the popular appeal to objective moral truth.

The argument takes as its presupposition that good and evil are real; that there is an ultimate standard of good and evil that supersedes mere fanciful “ideas” about what is good and evil.

He imagines that objective morality—morality that is true whether or not there’s anyone here to appreciate it—exists, and the atheist knows it. The tables are turned, and the atheist must acknowledge God as the grounding of his morality.

Nope. I need evidence for this objective morality, and Hyde provides none. He just asserts it with his reference to an “ultimate standard.” Hypothesizing objective morality is unnecessary to explain human morality. Look up “morality” in the dictionary to see that the concept works fine without an assumed objectivity.

It’s weird for someone who does not believe in ultimate good and evil to condemn God as evil because He did not achieve their personal vision of good.

Who decides what my moral beliefs are but me? I’ll grant that I’m an imperfect judge, but the buck stops here. I’m all I’ve got, and that’s true for everyone else.

The same goes for claims of God’s existence. When you consider the evil that God does in the Old Testament, does this look like the actions of an all-good god? We don’t presuppose God and then hammer the facts to fit; we evaluate the claims to see if the evidence points there. And Christianity fails with this mismatch between the claims of an all-good god versus reality and their own holy book.

“10. Evolution has answered the question of where we came from. There is no need for ignorant ancient myths anymore.”

He says that the evolution vs. Creationism debate is where we see the Christian challenge to science most clearly played out. His strawman version of the atheist argument is that science will eventually answer all questions about reality. This isn’t my position; I simply say that science has a remarkable track record for teaching us about reality, while religion has taught us absolutely nothing. Religion makes claims—that there is life after death, for example—but these are always without sufficient evidence.

Hyde declares that he has lost all interest in the debate and says, “Usually both sides of the debate use large amounts of dishonesty in order to gain points.” What’s dishonest about the evolution side? It’s the overwhelming scientific consensus. As laymen, we can gnash our teeth about that consensus, but we’re still obliged to accept it as the best provisional explanation that we have.

(Incredibly, I’ve come across Creationists who claim that evolution isn’t the scientific consensus. Just to put the final nail in that coffin, I’ve included an appendix below of many sources, both from within the scientific community as well as from evolution deniers, making clear that evolution is indeed the consensus.)

Hyde goes on to get confused about what evolution claims and doesn’t claim. In the interest of time, I’ll give my responses and let you imagine the claims: there are no serious objections to evolution; evolution doesn’t claim to explain the origin of life—that’s abiogenesis; the Big Bang is also well-established science, though it doesn’t overlap evolution at all; and yes, science unashamedly has unanswered questions—working on those is where new knowledge comes from.

Since science has the track record, I suggest we look to it for answers, not religion.

Hyde wraps up with something of a Non-Overlapping Magesteria kind of argument:

Science is fantastic if you want to know what gauge wire is compatible with a 20 amp electric charge, how agriculture works, what causes disease and how to cure it, and a million other things. But where the physical sciences are completely lacking is in those issues most important to human beings—the truly existential issues: what does it mean to be human, why are we here, what is valuable, what does it mean to love, to hate, what am I to do with guilt, grief, sorrow, what does it mean to succeed, is there any meaning and what does ‘meaning’ mean, and, of course, is there a God?

Yes, religion does have answers to “What is my purpose?” and “Is there an afterlife?” and other existential questions. But take a look at a map of world religions and you’ll see the problem: religion’s answer depends on where you live in the world! Religions are local customs. Sure, they have answers, but why think they’re any more objectively true than the local customs for when a gentleman should remove his hat or which utensil to use to eat your salad?

And science does have answers to many of these questions: there’s no evidence of a transcendental purpose to your life, so you’d better get busy assigning your own; there’s no evidence of an afterlife, so you might want to get used to that; and so on.

Science has answers; it’s just that the Christian doesn’t like them.

You either have a god who sends child rapists to rape children
or you have a god who simply watches and says:
“When you’re done I’m going to punish you.”
If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would.
That’s the difference between me and your god.
— Tracie Harris, The Atheist Experience

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 7/3/15.)

Image from Herbert Rudeen, CC license

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Appendix: Evolution is the scientific consensus

  • Evolution is one of the most robust and widely accepted principles of modern science.Source: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2006
  • There is no longer a debate among scientists about whether evolution has taken place.Source: National Science Teachers Association
  • “Evolution is not only universally accepted by scientists; it has also been accepted by the leaders of most of the world’s major religions.” Source: National Academy of Sciences, 1999.
  • “Based on compelling evidence, the overwhelming majority of scientists and science educators accept evolution as the most reasonable explanation for the current diversity of life on earth and the set of processes that has led to this diversity.” Source: Joint statement of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council, and National Science Teachers Association, 2001
  • In response to “Don’t many famous scientists reject evolution?”: “No. The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming. Those opposed to the teaching of evolution sometimes use quotations from prominent scientists out of context to claim that scientists do not support evolution. However, examination of the quotations reveals that the scientists are actually disputing some aspect of how evolution occurs, not whether evolution occurred.” Source: Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, 1999
  • “Darwin presented compelling evidence for evolution in On the Origin and, since his time, the case has become overwhelming. Countless fossil discoveries allow us to trace the evolution of today’s organisms from earlier forms. DNA sequencing has confirmed beyond any doubt that all living creatures share a common origin. Innumerable examples of evolution in action can be seen all around us, from the pollution-matching pepper moth to fast-changing viruses such as HIV and H5N1 bird flu. Evolution is as firmly established a scientific fact as the roundness of the Earth.Source: NewScientist magazine, 2008.
  • “…Our magazine’s positions on evolution and intelligent design (ID) creationism reflect those of the scientific mainstream (that is, evolution: good science; ID: not science).” Source: the editor in chief of Scientific American, 2008
  • “When theories about chemical & biological evolutions (to produce life & complex life) are examined and evaluated, in the scientific community we see a majority consensus and a dissenting minority.” Source: American Scientific Affiliation: A Fellowship of Christians in Science
  • “Research!America supports the scientific community’s unanimous position that intelligent design does not meet the criteria of a scientific concept and thus should not be presented as one in the classroom. Evolution is backed by a substantial body of scientific evidence, whereas intelligent design is a matter of belief and not subject to proof.” Source: Research!America

Even the evolution deniers at least admit that evolution is the scientific consensus.

  • “If there is so much evidence for creation and against naturalistic evolution, why do the majority of scientists believe in evolution? … A number of young and old alike seem perplexed that the creation evidences presented seem so easy to understand—so logical, so obvious—and yet the majority of scientists still profess that the evidence ‘obviously’ fits with evolution.” Source: Ken Ham, Institute for Creation Research.
  • Evolution-rejecting scientists are in a minority.” Source: Jonathan Sarfati, Creation Ministries International.
  • “You are claiming that the church should adopt the scientific consensus today (on evolution and long ages)” Source: Jonathan Sarfati, Creation Ministries International.
  • “It is clear from U.S. Supreme Court precedents that the Constitution permits both the teaching of evolution as well as the teaching of scientific criticisms of prevailing scientific theories.” Source: Discovery Institute
  • “Of course, the ‘scientific consensus’ now holds that Darwinian evolution is true.” Source: Discovery Institute

 

March 4, 2019

Nonprofit organizations in the U.S. make a contract: society allows donations to be tax deductible, and in return those organizations make their financial records public to show that they used that income wisely. Every nonprofit fills out an annual IRS 990 form to make its cash flow public—every nonprofit, that is, except churches.

Not only is this exemption unfair, it makes churches look like they have something to hide. Given past financial scandals, some do, but this secrecy makes most churches look undeservedly bad. Christians should demand that this exemption be removed. This change would improve the reputation of American churches at a time when a little reputation polishing would be welcome.

This article has four sections: a brief overview of the problem enabled by the exemption, arguments against removing the exemption, arguments for removing it, and a conclusion.

Church scandals

This isn’t an indictment of all churches, just the bad actors hiding behind the good ones.

One problem enabled by secrecy is fraud. “In 2000, an estimated $7 billion was embezzled by leaders of churches and religious organizations in the United States. Several other studies have suggested that about fifteen percent of all individual churches will suffer embezzlement.”[1] Worldwide, the estimate of fraud is $35 billion annually.[2][3]

Scandals of various sorts have brought down famous church leaders—Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Mark Driscoll, and others.[4] James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel is just the most recent.[5] Even sex scandals sometimes have a financial component, such as the hush money paid by Jim Bakker.[6]

Secret finances have sheltered outlandish salaries, like Jim Bakker’s $1.6 million more than thirty years ago.[7] While that salary wasn’t illegal, it was embarrassing. It’s only fair that the people who are ultimately paying know how their money is spent.

Church finances can be hidden even from church leadership. In James MacDonald’s church, “one elder resigned over this, after asking to see the finances and being overruled by the rest of the board.”[8]

Of course, the presence of a few bad actors doesn’t mean that churches don’t do good work, that Christians are bad people, and so on, but that’s precisely the point. When good and bad churches blend together into an indistinguishable gray mass, public financial disclosure would let the good churches be seen for what they are.

Contrast the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse lawsuits, paid using church funds,[9] with conventional nonprofits. Yes, there have been scandals with them—excessive CEO compensation with United Way in 1992 and the Smithsonian Institution in 2007, for example[10]—but all evidence argues that financial transparency has prevented far worse. Churches would benefit from following their lead.

The status quo is broken. It’s ridiculous to imagine that all church financial scandals are behind us. Fortunately, we have a simple solution: the IRS 990 form has been around for 75 years, it’s tuned for large and small nonprofits, and filing one annually should be mandatory for all of them.

Let’s move on to consider arguments pro and con mandatory filing of 990s. First, the arguments against.

CON #1: Churches are trustworthy

The assumption that churches are inherently trustworthy was the reason churches were given the exemption in the first place in 1943,[11] but the summary above shows that that assumption fails. Churches are run by imperfect people, and people sometimes do bad things. The Bible says, “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin,”[12] but if church leaders aren’t sinning, they’re certainly doing something questionable. Daystar spent half a million dollars sponsoring a Christian NASCAR driver, Ken and Gloria Copeland live tax-free in a $6.3 million “parsonage,”[13] and Mark Driscoll spent $210,000 of church funds to buy his way onto the New York Times bestseller list.[14]

When outlandish expenses are made public, credibility can be lost. Pastors Creflo Dollar, Jesse Duplantis, and Ken Copeland publicly asked for extra donations for new business jets costing tens of millions of dollars, and the public responded with ridicule. One commenter asked, “Can a business jet pass through the eye of a needle?”[15]

CON #2: Let disclosure be at the churches’ option

This argument wants to let church leaders decide to open the books or not, as they choose, but in practice they choose secrecy. In one list of America’s biggest evangelists, seven are religious nonprofits, and they all file 990s as required. The remaining 23 are churches (“televangelists” might be more accurate), and none file 990s.[16] Of the 250,000 churches registered with the IRS, only two percent file 990s.[17]

CON #3: This violates the First Amendment

Would requiring the filing of a 990 form be a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?

It would not. The rules of tax-exempt status have nothing to do with religion. To encourage nonprofit organizations that do good for society (including churches), the IRS created the 501(c)(3) category. Donors can give to these organizations tax free. In return, the organizations make public their finances by filing annual 990 forms.

This demand for transparency is no special burden on churches. In fact, the reverse is true: giving an exemption unfairly benefits religion and so violates the First Amendment’s requirement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Removing the exemption is no violation of rights when it shouldn’t have been given in the first place, especially when churches have shown that they can’t self-govern.

Churches aren’t a law unto themselves, and they must obey laws just like any other organization—laws about building codes, public safety, protection of copyright, liability, and so on. Financial transparency is just one more obligation of nonprofit organizations that are good citizens within society.

CON #4: Filing a 990 is too burdensome

We don’t hear church leaders arguing that it’s too big a burden for the 1.5 million nonprofits who now must fill them out; rather, they’re just saying that it’s too much of a burden for them. No, if other nonprofits can fill out a form, churches can too.

The 990 has evolved in the 75 years that it’s been around, so any church’s worries about the form have been raised long ago. There is a four-page 990-EZ version for organizations with less than $200,000 in annual revenue, and a 990-N for organizations with less than $50,000 in revenue. The 990-N takes minutes to complete, so the fear of overburdening a church with a tiny congregation is unfounded.

Completed 990s were first made public in 1950, organizations were obliged to mail one to anyone who asked by 1996, and they began to be put online in 1998.[18] Today, a researcher can use sites like Foundation Center, Charity Navigator, or the IRS itself to bring up financial data on any nonprofit in seconds. For example, the 990 for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network is here. Income, expenses, assets, and the salaries of key employees—it’s all there. In 2016, it had $308 million in revenue and $143 million in assets, and Pat Robertson’s salary was $478,299.

What if the church doesn’t keep good financial records so that filling out the form is difficult? (The stereotypical example might be the disorganized small business owner dropping a shoebox stuffed with last year’s receipts onto the accountant’s desk.) Putting good financial management practices into place might be difficult, but they would be their own reward. “We’re too disorganized” is no reason for an exemption. Good financial management is proper stewardship of the money the congregation has entrusted to the church.

Five years after removing the exemption, once the 990 becomes assumed and churches are comfortable with the process, I predict that almost no one would advocate for going back to secret finances.

CON #5: It’s unnecessary, because we provide information to our members

Many churches share financial information with their members (though not all do), but this is not enough. Tax-exempt status is a financial bonus to nonprofit organizations, but the lost tax revenue must come from somewhere. Less tax on nonprofits means more tax on ordinary citizens. Since they’re footing the bill, they deserve to know, whether or not they’re members of a particular church.

Even when members can technically access financial information, this can be a difficult route. Asking a pastor to see the books might imply criticism and could harm a parishioner’s standing within the church. By contrast, access to a 990 is anonymous.

CON #6: We already have a solution—the ECFA

The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability was created in 1979 in response to public pressure from mainline churches against televangelists. Member organizations make a limited financial disclosure to the ECFA (not to the public), and ECFA membership provides a public seal of approval.

But why invent something new when the 990 had been in place for decades? Christian leaders were trying to complete the awkward sentence, “Churches need secrecy and can self-regulate because ___,” and they opted for transparency with training wheels. Yet again, this suggests their members have something to hide.

We’ve had forty years with the ECFA, and church scandals continue. Self-regulation relies on the consent of the regulated, and bad actors can simply not bother to join. The ECFA has 1700 members, of which only 150 are churches[19] (out of 330,000 churches in the U.S.), so it is no satisfactory alternative to true financial transparency.

CON #7: It’s not the government’s job to judge churches’ conduct

“Government should not be determining if a minister is living too lavishly. It’s not for the government to determine if someone really needs an airplane for their ministry. That’s just not something government should be getting into.”[20]

That’s a fair point, but that’s not the goal of mandatory 990s. With anonymous access to financial information, parishioners (not government) can decide if their church is using their donations wisely. If they disapprove, they can find a better fit by looking into other churches.

This is one of the advantages of the 990—it’s already being collected from other nonprofits, and adding churches to the list doesn’t increase the IRS bureaucracy. Checking on churches’ financial stewardship can be crowdsourced, a nice application of the “sunlight is the best disinfectant” principle.

CON #8: Disclosure would embarrass some churches

This is not an argument any church leader would admit to, but it’s likely the real reason. U.S. churches don’t want public critique of how they spend their $34 billion in annual income.[21]

Conventional nonprofits file 990s, and publicly traded corporations file disclosures mandated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Their disclosures may invite uncomfortable questions, but they muddle through. If a few churches need to scramble to clean up their acts before their finances become public, that’s a good thing.

Let’s now consider the pro arguments, those in favor of mandatory 990 filing for churches.

PRO #1: The status quo embarrasses all churches

This is the dual of the previous argument, and it may be the most powerful. Church scandals tar all churches. You can argue that your church is above reproach, but that’s just what the bad church was saying before its scandal became public. Make finances public, let them speak for themselves, and the churches that can be proud of their financial stewardship will separate from the rest.

PRO #2: If God knows, why can’t we all know?

From the Christian standpoint, any human disapproval is inconsequential compared to God’s. God knows everything, including how church leaders spend the money entrusted to them. If God is satisfied with the finances, how could a church be embarrassed to open its books to society? Said the other way around, if they’re embarrassed to show society, they’ve got some serious explaining to do before God.

Those church leaders who hesitate to open their books to the public place man before God as an authority. One wonders if they believe their own story.

PRO #3: The Bible encourages financial openness

It shouldn’t be necessary to argue that financial transparency is a cornerstone of good church management, but the Bible supports this principle.

We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man. (2 Corinthians 8:20–21)

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:12)

PRO #4: Transparency discourages impropriety

Open financial records mean that church members can monitor church operations. 990s aren’t the same as on-demand access to the church’s financial spreadsheet, but they can be read anonymously and are far better than the status quo.

Anyone who can spend the church’s money would know that it’s more than just God looking over their shoulder, which should reduce the temptation toward both embezzlement and unjustifiable expenses. Any financial scandals that are still possible might be caught earlier when they are smaller and less embarrassing.

This principle that openness encourages honesty pushed Billy Graham and some associates in 1948 to write the Modesto Manifesto, a set of guidelines for avoiding scandals that were a problem among Christian leaders even then. His organization published annual financial audits, and it summarized the financial results of revival meetings in local newspapers.[22]

Knowing that self-imposed rules could be broken, Graham constrained himself with these external rules. According to his biographer, “He has never thought that he was beyond temptation or that anything he wanted to do was all right.”[23]

PRO #5: Transparency is honest to taxpayers

The subsidy that American society gives religion because of its tax-exempt status is estimated at $83 billion per year.[24] The 990 would be the way for churches to say to the American taxpayers who are picking up the slack, “Thank you, and here’s how we’re spending the money you gave us.” Removing the exemption would also be fair to the other nonprofits who must fill out the 990.

Christians might defer to church leadership on spiritual matters, but it doesn’t follow that taxpayers should defer to church leadership on financial matters.

PRO #6: We find transparency in other contracts

Anyone who gets a patent receives legal protection for the invention in return for revealing the secrets of the invention. And any organization that gets 501(c)(3) status receives tax-free donations in return for opening its books.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said, “Having tax-exempt status is a great privilege, and in exchange for that privilege, all other groups must file a detailed report annually to the IRS and the public on how we spend donations. . . . Why should churches be exempt from basic financial reporting requirements? Equally important, why would churches not wish to be accountable?”[25]

PRO #7: Transparency is honest to church members

American taxpayers are subsidizing religion, but it’s the members themselves who are directly footing the bill. Not only must churches open their books to be fair to those members, but polls show that members want more transparency.

Financial secrecy helped keep the Catholic sexual abuse scandals hidden for so long, and Catholics are pushing back by demanding more financial transparency.

A 2002 Gallup poll found that sixty-five percent of Catholics agreed that the church should be more accountable for its finances, and seventy-nine percent wanted bishops to give a complete account of the financial impact of sexual abuse victim settlements. A study conducted by the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management found that a majority of Catholics wanted “full financial disclosure” from the church [emphasis added].[26]

That certainly seems fair, given that their donations fund the settlements.

Another case is Daystar, a Christian television network with over $200 million in assets and which takes in donations of $35 million annually. As a church, its books are secret, but records made available due to a lawsuit show that far less of the donations are given away as charity than promised. One experienced nonprofit analyst said, “Daystar needs to tell people that only about 5 percent of their contributions are going toward hospitals, churches, needy individuals.”[27]

Is 5 percent a lot or a little? Does it match what Daystar has promised on air or not? That’s not for me to judge, but it is for the donors to judge. Covert finances are not honest.

PRO #8: What cults are hiding behind this IRS loophole?

Scientology filed thousands of nuisance lawsuits against the IRS to protest its loss of church status. It finally dropped its lawsuits in return for nonprofit status.[28] What churches would you like to see the finances of? Hare Krishna? The Unification Church (“the Moonies”)? Nxivm? You may think that your church is operating ethically, but what about the other guys?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation argues that financial secretiveness allowed Jim Jones to hide the early signs of his church’s meltdown that led to the 1978 massacre of almost a thousand church members in Jonestown.[29]

And it would be good to get the IRS out of the church-defining business. While the IRS never reviews or assesses religious doctrine,[30] it does have a 14-point checklist[31] to decide if an organization is a “church.” The IRS says, “Because beliefs and practices vary so widely, there is no single definition of the word church for tax purposes. The IRS considers the facts and circumstances of each organization applying for church status.”[32]

With no 990 loophole, the IRS wouldn’t have to decide who is and who isn’t a church.

PRO #9: There is no argument for secrecy

Fill in the blank: “In our church/denomination, we want to maintain financial secrecy because ___.” Do you want to stand before the congregation and justify the explanation?

Or imagine it from the other direction. Suppose churches have been using the 990 for years, and everyone is accustomed to the transparency. Now someone proposes that the IRS provide a loophole to exempt churches from that requirement, and you need to make the argument. How would you argue for financial secrecy in the future?

Churches should be more financially transparent than the Mafia.

PRO #10: The 990 makes church governance easier

Church scandals often center around charismatic leaders who bully others in church leadership to get their way. Someone on the church board might suggest more financial transparency to the membership. Perhaps it’s criticism of an extravagant expense or a suggestion to apply the financial checks and balances used in business. They’re all shot down by the charismatic leader. Board members could push harder, but they risk their position on the board and their reputation within the church. Let’s make it easier on these church leaders who try to do the right thing by resolving this debate for them.

Here’s one take on the difficult position of these church leaders.

Those who confront pastors . . . may be told that they are “unsubmissive” or “disloyal”. . . . Churches, as they currently exist, actually foster and shelter malfeasance. The dynamics of religious leadership discourage laypeople from pressing for financial accountability even in more democratic polities, suggesting that it is imperative for the government to apply the same laws to churches that mandate transparency for other nonprofits.[33]

Mandatory 990s are like round thermostats. In the 1950s, industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss noticed that rectangular thermostats were often mounted on the wall slightly crooked. He designed the popular Honeywell round thermostat that couldn’t be mounted on the wall crooked. The opportunity to mount it wrong was gone. 990s are like that—the debate about how open to be and who is allowed to see what information is gone. Constraints can be freeing.

The risk to board members with a potentially bullying pastor is also reduced. The hands of the board are tied—churches must be financially transparent; the debate is over; next issue. The IRS becomes the hero in this story, because they took the burden from the board.

PRO #11: More transparency might mean more revenue

Is the IRS 990 bitter medicine, or is it the route to greater church income?

Financial transparency helps revenue in two ways. First, it gives members more confidence that their money is being spent wisely. Second, it reduces the chance that one church scandal will contaminate the entire community. Members can state that their church isn’t like the one with the scandal and back that up with data.

One study found that “giving rates within the Catholic Church varied in proportion to transparency and accountability” and almost half of respondents to another said they’d be more generous “if [they] understood better what the church does with its money.”[34]

At a time when churches nationwide are scrambling for members, wise financial stewardship is a nice selling feature. Your church might be more generous in helping the less fortunate than other churches in your neighborhood, but without universal 990s, how would anyone know?

Conclusion

Our situation is a little like that of the food industry in the U.S. in the late 1800s. Milk was sometimes diluted with water infused with chalk or plaster to cut costs. Pepper was sometimes diluted with charred rope or dirt. Formaldehyde and borax were food preservatives. Some food dyes contained lead or arsenic, and so on.[35] The food industry was constrained by few laws, and they encouraged politicians to keep it that way.

The food industry was in bed with politicians in the late 1800s, and church leaders are in bed with politicians today. Filing 990s might be embarrassing, so politicians removed that little problem for their friends. Churches and politicians (with some exceptions) like the status quo.

The food industry liked the status quo, too, but with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, there was a new sheriff in town. Adulterating or mislabeling food and drugs had become a crime. The food industry and politicians, who would theoretically be responsible for identifying and solving the problem, were actually part of the problem. The industry couldn’t be trusted to police itself. Change came after citizens woke to the problem and demanded change. Press about the science behind the problem plus exposés like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1904) made the difference.

That’s the lesson for financial transparency today. Trusting churches to police themselves doesn’t work, and change apparently won’t come through church leadership, who have assured politicians that the exemption is a political third rail. Maybe they can eventually be cajoled to do the right thing, but they won’t be leading the charge. Change will come after citizens see the problem and demand change. Better: Christians, we need you to see the problem and demand change.

There are many beneficiaries from financial transparency. Not only are typical Christians the biggest winners from this change—by opening church finances that had looked suspicious—they’re the ones with the power. Politicians will listen to them.

At the turn of the twentieth century, we needed new science to build the case for food safety. Today, we don’t need anything new to make the case for financial transparency, since the case is obvious to anyone interested enough to look for it. What we need is a critical mass of Christians demanding change.

My Christian friends, raise this topic with others in your congregation. Forward them this article. Write a letter to the editor. Complain to your congressperson. Do something to make this an important topic of conversation.

Don’t look to church leadership to do it for you. This is your fight, and you’ll be the beneficiary.

Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants;
electric light the most efficient policeman.
— Future SCOTUS Justice Louis Brandeis

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Acknowledgement: I found a law journal article particular helpful, both for the authority of its comments on constitutionality and its extensive research: “The Law and Financial Transparency in Churches: Reconsidering the Form 990 Exemption” by John Montague.

[1] John Montague, “The Law and Financial Transparency in Churches: Reconsidering the Form 990 Exemption,” Cardozo Law Review 35, no. 203 (2013): 232.

[2] Veronica Dagher, “Trust in the Lord…But Check Out the Church,” Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2012.

[3]Status of Global Mission, 2014,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38, no. 1, see item 56 (Ecclesiastical crime).

[4] Montague, 236.

[5] Libby Anne, “The Harvest Bible Chapel Scandal in a Nutshell (And Why You Should Care),” Love, Joy, Feminism blog, February 20, 2019.

[6] Montague, 218.

[7] Montague, 218.

[8] Libby Anne.

[9] Montague, 238.

[10] Montague, 222–3.

[11] Montague, 230.

[12] 1 John 5:18; see also 1 John 3:6–9.

[13] John Burnett, “Can A Television Network Be A Church? The IRS Says Yes,” NPR, April 1, 2014.

[14] Husna Haq, “Pastor reportedly buys his way onto New York Times bestseller list,” The Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2014.

[15] Washington Post, “Televangelist wants his followers to pay for a $54-million private jet. It would be his fourth plane,” Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2018.

[16]Thirty Leading Religious Broadcasters,” NPR, April 1, 2014.

[17] Leonardo Blair, “Growing Fraud Sucks Billions From Churches Annually; This IRS Fix Could Help, Expert Says,” The Christian Post, August 12, 2018.

[18] Montague, 213, 224, and 229.

[19] Montague, 256.

[20] John Burnett.

[21] Montague, 206.

[22] Montague, 254–5.

[23] Montague, 255.

[24] Dylan Matthews, “You give religions more than $82.5 billion a year,” The Washington Post, August 22, 2013.

[25] Freedom From Religion Foundation, “FFRF sues IRS over preferential treatment of churches,” Freethought Today, Jan/Feb 2013.

[26] Montague, 252.

[27] John Burnett.

[28]Scientology and law,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

[29] Annie Laurie Gaylor, “To avoid another Jonestown, reform IRS church reporting policy,” Freethought Now!, November 19, 2018.

[30]Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organizations,” IRS Publication 1828, 2015.

[31]‘Churches’ Defined,” IRS.

[32]Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization,” IRS publication 557, 2018.

[33] Montague, 243–4.

[34] Montague, 247–8.

[35] Ari Shapiro, “How A 19th Century Chemist Took On The Food Industry With A Grisly Experiment,” NPR, October 8, 2018.

February 26, 2019

Nonprofit organizations in the U.S. make a contract: society allows donations to be tax deductible, and in return those organizations make their financial records public to show that they used that income wisely. Every nonprofit fills out an annual IRS 990 form to make its cash flow public—every nonprofit, that is, except churches.

Not only is this exemption unfair, it makes churches look like they have something to hide. Given past financial scandals, some do, but this secrecy makes most churches look undeservedly bad. Christians should demand that this exemption be removed. This change would improve the reputation of American churches at a time when a little reputation polishing would be welcome.

This article has four sections: a brief overview of the problem enabled by the exemption, arguments against removing the exemption, arguments for removing it, and a conclusion.

Church scandals

This isn’t an indictment of all churches, just the bad actors hiding behind the good ones.

One category of scandals is fraud. “In 2000, an estimated $7 billion was embezzled by leaders of churches and religious organizations in the United States. Several other studies have suggested that about fifteen percent of all individual churches will suffer embezzlement.”[1] Worldwide, the estimate of fraud is $35 billion annually.[2][3]

Scandals of various sorts have brought down famous church leaders—Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Mark Driscoll, and others.[4] James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel is just the most recent.[5] Even sex scandals sometimes have a financial component, such as the hush money paid by Jim Bakker.[6]

Secret finances have sheltered outlandish salaries, like Jim Bakker’s $1.6 million more than thirty years ago.[7] While that salary wasn’t illegal, it was embarrassing. It’s only fair that the people who are ultimately paying know how their money is spent. Church finances can be hidden even from church leadership. In James MacDonald’s church, “one elder resigned over this, after asking to see the finances and being overruled by the rest of the board.”[8]

Of course, the presence of a few bad actors doesn’t mean that churches don’t do good work, that Christians are bad people, and so on, but that’s precisely the point. When good and bad churches blend together into an indistinguishable gray mass, public financial disclosure would let the good churches be seen for what they are.

Contrast the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse lawsuits, paid using church funds,[9] with conventional nonprofits. Yes, there have been scandals with them—excessive CEO compensation with United Way in 1992 and the Smithsonian Institution in 2007, for example[10]—but all evidence argues that financial transparency has prevented far worse. Churches would benefit from following their lead.

The status quo is broken. It’s ridiculous to imagine that all church financial scandals are behind us. Fortunately, we have a simple solution: the IRS 990 form has been around for 75 years, it’s tuned for large and small nonprofits, and filing one annually should be mandatory for all of them.

Let’s move on to consider arguments pro and con mandatory filing of 990s. First, the arguments against.

CON #1: Churches are trustworthy

The assumption that churches are inherently trustworthy was the reason churches were given the exemption in the first place in 1943,[11] but the summary above shows that that assumption fails. Churches are run by imperfect people, and people sometimes do bad things. The Bible says, “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin,”[12] but if church leaders aren’t sinning, they’re certainly doing something questionable. Daystar spent half a million dollars sponsoring a Christian NASCAR driver, Ken and Gloria Copeland live tax-free in a $6.3 million “parsonage,”[13] and Mark Driscoll spent $210,000 of church funds to buy his way onto the New York Times bestseller list.[14]

When outlandish expenses are made public, credibility can be lost. Pastors Creflo Dollar, Jesse Duplantis, and Ken Copeland publicly asked for extra donations for new business jets costing tens of millions of dollars, and the public responded with ridicule. One commenter asked, “Can a business jet pass through the eye of a needle?”[15]

CON #2: Let disclosure be the churches’ option

This argument wants to let church leaders decide to open the books or not, as they choose, but in practice they choose secrecy. In one list of America’s biggest evangelists, seven are religious nonprofits, and they all file 990s as required. The remaining 23 are churches (“televangelists” might be more accurate), and none file 990s.[16] Of the 250,000 churches registered with the IRS, only two percent file 990s.[17]

CON #3: This violates the First Amendment

Would requiring the filing of a 990 form be a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?

It would not. The rules of tax-exempt status have nothing to do with religion. To encourage nonprofit organizations that do good for society (including churches), the IRS created the 501(c)(3) category. Donors can give to these organizations tax free. In return, the organizations make public their finances by filing annual 990 forms.

This demand for transparency is no special burden on churches. In fact, the reverse is true: giving an exemption unfairly benefits religion and so violates the First Amendment’s requirement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Removing the exemption is no violation of rights when it shouldn’t have been given in the first place, especially when churches have shown that they can’t self-govern.

Churches aren’t a law unto themselves, and they must obey laws just like any other organization—laws about building codes, public safety, protection of copyright, liability, and so on. Financial transparency is just one more obligation of organizations that are good citizens within society.

CON #4: Filing a 990 is too burdensome

We don’t hear church leaders arguing that it’s too big a burden for the 1.5 million nonprofits who now must fill them out; rather, they’re just saying that it’s too much of a burden for them. No, if other nonprofits can deal with them, churches can too.

The 990 has evolved in the 75 years that it’s been around, so any church’s worries about the form have been raised long ago. There is a four-page 990-EZ version for organizations with less than $200,000 in annual revenue, and a 990-N for organizations with less than $50,000 in revenue. The 990-N takes minutes to complete, so the fear of overburdening a church with a tiny congregation is unfounded.

Completed 990s were first made public in 1950, organizations were obliged to mail one to anyone who asked by 1996, and they began to be put online in 1998.[18] Today, a researcher can use sites like Foundation Center, Charity Navigator, or the IRS itself to bring up financial data on any nonprofit in seconds. For example, the 990 for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network is here. Income, expenses, assets, and the salaries of key employees—it’s all there. In 2016, it had $308 million in revenue and $143 million in assets, and Pat Robertson’s salary was $478,299.

What if the church doesn’t keep good financial records so that filling out the form is difficult? (The stereotypical example might be the disorganized small business owner dropping a shoebox stuffed with last year’s receipts onto the accountant’s desk.) Putting good financial management practices into place might be difficult, but they would be their own reward. “We’re too disorganized” is no reason for an exemption. Good financial management is proper stewardship of the money the congregation has entrusted to the church.

Five years after removing the exemption, once the 990 becomes assumed and churches are comfortable with the process, I predict that almost no one would advocate for going back to secret finances.

CON #5: It’s unnecessary, because we provide information to our members

Many churches share financial information with their members (though not all do), but this is not enough. Tax-exempt status is a financial bonus to nonprofit organizations, but the lost tax revenue must come from somewhere. Less tax on nonprofits means more tax on ordinary citizens. Since they’re footing the bill, they deserve to know, whether or not they’re members of a particular church.

Even when members can technically access financial information, this can be a difficult route. Asking a pastor to see the books might imply criticism and could harm a parishioner’s standing within the church. By contrast, access to a 990 is anonymous.

CON #6: We already have a solution—the ECFA

The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability was created in 1979 in response to public pressure from mainline churches against televangelists. Member organizations make a limited financial disclosure to the ECFA (not to the public), and ECFA membership provides a public seal of approval.

But why invent something new when the 990 had been in place for decades? Christian leaders were trying to complete the awkward sentence, “Churches need secrecy and can self-regulate because ___,” and they opted for transparency with training wheels. Yet again, this suggests their members have something to hide.

We’ve had forty years with the ECFA, and church scandals continue. Self-regulation relies on the consent of the regulated, and bad actors can simply not bother to join. The ECFA has 1700 members, of which only 150 are churches[19] (out of 330,000 churches in the U.S.), so it is no satisfactory alternative to true financial transparency.

CON #7: It’s not the government’s job to snoop into churches’ conduct

“Government should not be determining if a minister is living too lavishly. It’s not for the government to determine if someone really needs an airplane for their ministry. That’s just not something government should be getting into.”[20]

That’s a fair point, but that’s not the goal of mandatory 990s. With anonymous access to financial information, parishioners can decide if their church is using their donations wisely. If they disapprove, they can find a better fit by checking other churches’ financials.

This is one of the advantages of the 990—it’s already being collected from other nonprofits, and adding churches to the list doesn’t increase the IRS bureaucracy. Checking on churches’ financial stewardship can be crowdsourced, a nice application of the “sunlight is the best disinfectant” principle.

CON #8: Disclosure would embarrass some churches

This is not an argument any church leader would admit to, but it’s likely the real reason. Churches don’t want public critique of how they spend their $34 billion in annual income.[21]

Conventional nonprofits file 990s, and publicly traded corporations file disclosures mandated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Their disclosures may invite uncomfortable questions, but they muddle through. If a few churches need to scramble to clean up their acts before their finances become public, that’s a good thing.

Let’s now consider the pro arguments, those in favor of mandatory 990 filing for churches.

PRO #1: The status quo embarrasses all churches

This is the dual of the previous argument, and it may be the most powerful. Church scandals tar all churches. You can argue that your church is above reproach, but that’s just what the bad church was saying before its scandal became public. Make finances public, let them speak for themselves, and the churches that can be proud of their financial stewardship will separate from the rest.

PRO #2: If God knows, why can’t we all know?

From the Christian standpoint, any human disapproval is inconsequential compared to God’s. God knows everything, including how church leaders spend the money entrusted to them. If God is satisfied with the finances, how could a church be embarrassed to open its books to society? Said the other way around, if they’re embarrassed to show society, they’ve got some serious explaining to do before God.

Those church leaders who hesitate to open their books to the public place man before God as an authority. One wonders if they believe their own story.

PRO #3: The Bible encourages financial openness

It shouldn’t be necessary to argue that financial transparency is a cornerstone of good church management, but the Bible supports this principle.

We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man. (2 Corinthians 8:20–21)

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:12)

PRO #4: Transparency discourages impropriety

Open financial records mean that church members can monitor church operations. 990s aren’t the same as on-demand access to the church’s financial spreadsheet, but they can be read anonymously and are far better than the status quo.

Anyone who can spend the church’s money would know that it’s more than just God looking over their shoulder, which should reduce the temptation toward both embezzlement and unjustifiable expenses. Any financial scandals that are still possible might be caught earlier when they are smaller and less embarrassing.

This principle that openness encourages honesty pushed Billy Graham and some associates in 1948 to write the Modesto Manifesto, a set of guidelines for avoiding scandals that were a problem among Christian leaders even then. His organization published annual financial audits, and it summarized the financial results of revival meetings in local newspapers.[22]

Knowing that self-imposed rules could be broken, Graham constrained himself with these external rules. According to his biographer, “He has never thought that he was beyond temptation or that anything he wanted to do was all right.”[23]

PRO #5: Transparency is honest to taxpayers

The subsidy that American society gives religion because of its tax-exempt status is estimated at $83 billion per year.[24] The 990 would be the way for churches to say to the American taxpayers who are picking up the slack, “Thank you, and here’s how we’re spending the money you gave us.” Removing the exemption would also be fair to the other nonprofits who must fill out the 990.

Christians may defer to church leadership on spiritual matters, but it doesn’t follow that taxpayers should defer to church leadership on financial matters.

PRO #6: We find transparency in other contracts

Anyone who gets a patent receives legal protection for the invention in return for revealing the secrets of the invention. And any organization that gets 501(c)(3) status receives tax-free donations in return for opening its books.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said, “Having tax-exempt status is a great privilege, and in exchange for that privilege, all other groups must file a detailed report annually to the IRS and the public on how we spend donations. . . . Why should churches be exempt from basic financial reporting requirements? Equally important, why would churches not wish to be accountable?”[25]

PRO #7: Transparency is honest to church members

American taxpayers are subsidizing religion, but it’s the members themselves who are directly footing the bill. Not only must churches open their books to be fair to those members, but polls show that members want more transparency.

Financial secrecy helped keep the Catholic sexual abuse scandals hidden for so long, and Catholics are pushing back by demanding more financial transparency.

A 2002 Gallup poll found that sixty-five percent of Catholics agreed that the church should be more accountable for its finances, and seventy-nine percent wanted bishops to give a complete account of the financial impact of sexual abuse victim settlements. A study conducted by the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management found that a majority of Catholics wanted “full financial disclosure” from the church [emphasis added].[26]

That certainly seems fair, given that their donations fund the settlements.

Another case is Daystar, a Christian television network with over $200 million in assets and which takes in donations of $35 million annually. As a church, its books are secret, but records made available due to a lawsuit show that far less of the donations are given away as charity than promised. One experienced nonprofit analyst said, “Daystar needs to tell people that only about 5 percent of their contributions are going toward hospitals, churches, needy individuals.”[27]

Is 5 percent a lot or a little? Does it match what Daystar has promised on air or not? That’s not for me to judge, but it is for the donors to judge. Covert finances are not honest.

PRO #8: What cults are hiding behind this IRS loophole?

Scientology filed thousands of nuisance lawsuits against the IRS to protest its loss of church status. It finally dropped its lawsuits in return for nonprofit status.[28] What churches would you like to see the finances of? Hare Krishna? The Unification Church (“the Moonies”)? Nxivm? You may think that your church is operating ethically, but what about the other guys?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation argues that financial secretiveness allowed Jim Jones to hide the early signs of his church’s meltdown that led to the 1978 massacre of almost a thousand church members in Jonestown.[29]

And it would be good to get the IRS out of the church-defining business. While the IRS never reviews or assesses religious doctrine,[30] it does have a 14-point checklist[31] to decide if an organization is a “church.” The IRS says, “Because beliefs and practices vary so widely, there is no single definition of the word church for tax purposes. The IRS considers the facts and circumstances of each organization applying for church status.”[32]

With no 990 loophole, the IRS wouldn’t have to decide who is and who isn’t a church.

PRO #9: There is no argument for secrecy

Fill in the blank: “In our church/denomination, we want to maintain financial secrecy because ___.” Do you want to stand before the congregation and justify the explanation?

Or imagine it from the other direction. Suppose churches have been using the 990 for years, and everyone is accustomed to the transparency. Now someone proposes that the IRS provide a loophole to exempt churches from that requirement, and you need to make the argument. How would you argue for financial secrecy in the future?

Churches should be more financially transparent than the Mafia.

PRO #10: The 990 makes church governance easier

Church scandals often center around charismatic leaders who bully others in church leadership to get their way. Someone on the church board might suggest more financial transparency to the membership. Perhaps it’s criticism of an extravagant expense or maybe a suggestion to apply the financial checks and balances used in business. They’re all shot down. Board members could push harder, but they risk their position on the board and their reputation within the church. Let’s make it easier on these church leaders who try to do the right thing by resolving this debate for them.

Here’s one take on the difficult position of these church leaders.

Those who confront pastors . . . may be told that they are “unsubmissive” or “disloyal”. . . . Churches, as they currently exist, actually foster and shelter malfeasance. The dynamics of religious leadership discourage laypeople from pressing for financial accountability even in more democratic polities, suggesting that it is imperative for the government to apply the same laws to churches that mandate transparency for other nonprofits.[33]

Mandatory 990s are like round thermostats. In the 1950s, industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss noticed that rectangular thermostats were often mounted on the wall slightly crooked. He designed the popular Honeywell round thermostat that couldn’t be mounted on the wall crooked. The opportunity to mount it wrong was gone. 990s are like that—the debate about how open to be and who is allowed to see what information is gone. Constraints can be freeing.

The risk to board members with a potentially bullying pastor is also reduced. Their hands are tied—churches must be financially transparent; the debate is over; next issue. The IRS becomes the hero in this story, because they took the burden from the board.

PRO #11: More transparency might mean more revenue

Is the IRS 990 bitter medicine? Or is it the route to greater church income?

Financial transparency helps revenue in two ways. First, it gives members more confidence that their money is being spent wisely. Second, it reduces the chance that one church scandal will contaminate the entire community. Members can state that their church isn’t like the one with the scandal and back that up with data.

One study found that “giving rates within the Catholic Church varied in proportion to transparency and accountability” and almost half of respondents to another said they’d be more generous “if [they] understood better what the church does with its money.”[34]

At a time when churches nationwide are scrambling for members, wise financial stewardship is a nice selling feature. Your church might be more generous in helping the less fortunate than other churches in your neighborhood, but without universal 990s, how would anyone know?

Conclusion

Our situation is a little like that of the food industry in the late 1800s. Milk was sometimes diluted with water infused with chalk or plaster to cut costs. Pepper was sometimes diluted with charred rope or dirt. Formaldehyde and borax were food preservatives. Some food dyes contained lead or arsenic, and so on.[35] The food industry was constrained by few laws, and they encouraged politicians to keep it that way.

The food industry was in bed with politicians in the late 1800s, and church leaders are in bed with politicians today. Filing 990s might be embarrassing, so politicians removed that little problem for their friends. Churches and politicians (with some exceptions) like the status quo.

The food industry liked the status quo, too, but with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, there was a new sheriff in town. Adulterating or mislabeling food and drugs had become a crime. The food industry and politicians, who would theoretically be responsible for identifying and solving the problem, were actually part of the problem. The industry couldn’t be trusted to police itself. Change came after citizens woke to the problem and demanded change. Press about the science behind the problem plus exposés like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1904) made the difference.

That’s the lesson for financial transparency today. Trusting churches to police themselves doesn’t work, and change apparently won’t come through church leadership, who have assured politicians that the exemption is a political third rail. Maybe they can eventually be cajoled to do the right thing, but they won’t be leading the charge. Change will come after citizens see the problem and demand change. Better: Christians, we need you to see the problem and demand change.

There are many beneficiaries from financial transparency. Not only are typical Christians the biggest winners from this change—by opening church finances that had looked suspicious—they’re the ones with the power. Politicians will listen to them.

At the turn of the twentieth century, we needed new science to build the case for food safety. Today, we don’t need anything new to make the case for financial transparency, since the case is obvious to anyone interested enough to look for it. What we need is a critical mass of Christians demanding change.

My Christian friends, raise this topic with others in your congregation. Forward them this article. Write a letter to the editor. Complain to your congressperson. Do something to make this an important topic of conversation. Don’t look to church leadership to do it for you. This is your opportunity to change things for the better.

Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants;
electric light the most efficient policeman.
— Future SCOTUS Justice Louis Brandeis

.


Acknowledgement: I found a law journal article particular helpful, both for the authority of its comments on constitutionality and its extensive research: “The Law and Financial Transparency in Churches: Reconsidering the Form 990 Exemption” by John Montague.

[1] John Montague, “The Law and Financial Transparency in Churches: Reconsidering the Form 990 Exemption,” Cardozo Law Review 35, no. 203 (2013): 232.

[2] Veronica Dagher, “Trust in the Lord…But Check Out the Church,” Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2012.

[3]Status of Global Mission, 2014,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38, no. 1, see item 56 (Ecclesiastical crime).

[4] Montague, 236.

[5] Libby Anne, “The Harvest Bible Chapel Scandal in a Nutshell (And Why You Should Care),” Love, Joy, Feminism blog, February 20, 2019.

[6] Montague, 218.

[7] Montague, 218.

[8] Libby Anne.

[9] Montague, 238.

[10] Montague, 222–3.

[11] Montague, 230.

[12] 1 John 5:18; see also 1 John 3:6–9.

[13] John Burnett, “Can A Television Network Be A Church? The IRS Says Yes,” NPR, April 1, 2014.

[14] Husna Haq, “Pastor reportedly buys his way onto New York Times bestseller list,” The Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2014.

[15] Washington Post, “Televangelist wants his followers to pay for a $54-million private jet. It would be his fourth plane,” Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2018.

[16]Thirty Leading Religious Broadcasters,” NPR, April 1, 2014.

[17] Leonardo Blair, “Growing Fraud Sucks Billions From Churches Annually; This IRS Fix Could Help, Expert Says,” The Christian Post, August 12, 2018.

[18] Montague, 213, 224, and 229.

[19] Montague, 256.

[20] John Burnett.

[21] Montague, 206.

[22] Montague, 254–5.

[23] Montague, 255.

[24] Dylan Matthews, “You give religions more than $82.5 billion a year,” The Washington Post, August 22, 2013.

[25] Freedom From Religion Foundation, “FFRF sues IRS over preferential treatment of churches,” Freethought Today, Jan/Feb 2013.

[26] Montague, 252.

[27] John Burnett.

[28]Scientology and law,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

[29] Annie Laurie Gaylor, “To avoid another Jonestown, reform IRS church reporting policy,” Freethought Now!, November 19, 2018.

[30]Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organizations,” IRS Publication 1828, 2015.

[31]‘Churches’ Defined,” IRS.

[32]Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization,” IRS publication 557, 2018.

[33] Montague, 243–4.

[34] Montague, 247–8.

[35] Ari Shapiro, “How A 19th Century Chemist Took On The Food Industry With A Grisly Experiment,” NPR, October 8, 2018.

May 25, 2018

Christian apologist Mikel Del Rosario raised three hard-hitting points (and by “hard-hitting,” I mean “childish”). I want to examine them to show what passes for good apologetics. Read part 1 of my response here.

Let’s wrap up the response to his point #2.

Point 2. The Problem of Evil Doesn’t Mean There’s No God

The Christian worldview gives us another option that atheists often leave out of the equation. . . . God can have good reasons for allowing evil—even if we don’t know what those reasons are.

This error is so common that it needs a name, so I’ll name it: the Hypothetical God Fallacy. Sure, if we presuppose an omniscient God, this gets us out of every possible jam in which God looks bad. Haiti tsunami? God could’ve had good reasons. A young mother, beloved in her community, dies suddenly and leaves behind a husband and three children? A result of God’s good reasons. Genocide demanded and slavery accepted in the Old Testament? World War? Plane crash? Missing keys?

God.

This short article is peppered with this comforting yet ludicrous fallacy:

If God is good and evil exists . . .

The mere fact that I can’t figure out why God allows some of the things to happen that he does . . . is not warrant for the conclusion that he’s got no such reasons.

It actually takes some humility to admit the role of human finiteness in understanding why God allows evil.

Just because something might seem pointless to us, doesn’t mean God can’t have a morally justified reason for it.

I hope that, as you see more examples of this, it becomes like fingernails on a blackboard.

Yes, bad things in the world don’t force the conclusion that God can’t exist. Fortunately, I don’t draw such a conclusion. And yes, if God exists, he could have his reasons for things that we don’t understand.

The Hypothetical God Fallacy is a fallacy because no one interested in the truth starts with a conclusion (God exists) and then arranges the facts to support that conclusion. That’s backwards; it’s circular reasoning. Rather, the truth seeker starts with the facts and then follows them to their conclusion. (More here.)

If God exists, he could have terrific reasons for why there’s so much gratuitous evil in the world. The same could be true for the Invisible Pink Unicorn (glitter be upon Him). Neither approach does anything to support a belief chosen beforehand.

Point 3. The Problem of Evil Isn’t Just a Christian Problem

The Problem of Evil isn’t just a Christian problem. Evil is everybody’s problem!

Then you don’t know what the Problem of Evil is, because it is precisely just a Christian problem. The Problem of Evil asks, how can a good God allow all the gratuitous evil we see in our world? Drop the God presupposition, and the problem goes away.

You could ask the different question, how does an atheist explain the bad in the world? Quick answer: shit happens. Some is bad luck (mechanical problem causes a car accident), some is natural (flood), some is caused by other people (jerky coworker badmouths you to the boss and you don’t get the promotion), and some is caused by you (you should’ve gotten the flood insurance). Adding God to the equation explains nothing and introduces the Problem of Evil so that you’re worse off than when you started.

Del Rosario again:

If atheism is true, there’s no basis for objective moral values and duties.

Sounds right, but why imagine that objective moral values exist? What many apologists perceive as objective moral values are actually just shared moral values. That we share moral values isn’t too surprising since we’re all the same species. Nothing supernatural is required. (More here.)

Del Rosario stumbles over another issue with morality.

You couldn’t have any kind of real, moral grounding to call it objectively evil—if atheism is true.

He’s using “real” to mean ultimate or objective. And here again, the ball’s in his court to convince us of his remarkable claim that objective morality exists and that everyone can access it. (Suggestion: find a resolution to the abortion problem that is universally acceptable. If there’s not a single correct resolution then it’s not an objective moral truth, and if we can’t reliably access it, then it’s useless.)

As for the ordinary, everyday sort of moral grounding, the kind that both Christians and atheists use, you’ll find that in the dictionary. Look up “morality,” and you’ll read nothing about objective grounding.

We have one final challenge:

The atheist position’s got another problem to deal with: The Problem of Good. In other words, naturalism has the challenge of providing a sufficient moral grounding for goodness itself—in addition to making sense of evil in the world. And that’s a pretty tall order for a philosophy with absolutely no room for God.

What’s difficult? We’re good because of evolution. We’re social animals, like wolves and chimpanzees, so we have cooperative traits like honesty, cooperation, sympathy, trustworthiness, and so on.

The God hypothesis adds nothing to the conversation, and we must watch out for it being smuggled in as a presupposition (the Hypothetical God Fallacy). And we’re back where we started from, wondering where the good Christian arguments are.

You don’t need religion to have morals.
If you can’t determine right from wrong
then you lack empathy, not religion.
(seen on the internet)

.
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 9/8/14.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

September 23, 2016

In 1977, the Dr Pepper soft drink was promoted with the slogan, “Be a Pepper.”

The marketing campaign behind that slogan had television commercials with hip, cheerful, attractive people dancing through life with the lines,

I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper,
She’s a Pepper, we’re a Pepper,
Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?
Be a Pepper. Drink Dr Pepper.

Parody

A few years later, the Saturday Night Live sketch comedy TV show did a skit* with Laraine Newman playing a teenage girl named Jennifer, sitting on the floor in the family room with the telephone. She calls up strangers from the phone book and encourages them to drink Dr Pepper and asks, “Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?” She gets the polite brush-off that you’d expect from such a marketing call.

After listening to a few of these calls, her parents tell her that she’s changed ever since she became a Pepper. She’s always at Pepper meetings or calling strangers on the phone or going door to door to encourage people to drink Dr Pepper. She doesn’t see her old friends anymore.

After the father says that it would be different if she got paid, she says, “A Pepper would never accept money for this!”

It’s like she’s in a religious cult. What could be crazier? We have consumers of a commercial product spending their own time and resources increasing the sales of that product, with the only compensation being accolades from fellow believers or perhaps just the knowledge that important work had to be done, and they pitched in to help.

Christianity

We’re more familiar with earnest evangelists within Christianity, but that doesn’t make them any more sensible. They’re told to get out and increase Christianity’s market share, and many do it without pay. Does this make any more sense than Jennifer’s project?

Would you be motivated if the paid staff of Dr Pepper encouraged you to spread the word? Why be any more motivated if the paid staff of the Catholic church or Baptist church or Lutheran church made the same request?

The Great Commission

The typical response is that Christians are obliged to spread the word, but average Christians shouldn’t flatter themselves that Jesus gave them the Great Commission. The gospel of Matthew ends with the eleven disciples at an offsite with Jesus. Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18), but this was clearly addressed to those eleven disciples.

To Christians who think that evangelism is important, remember that it was important to Jennifer, too. Is your project any better supported by logic?

See also: The Great Commission and How It Doesn’t Apply to You

Satan deceives us into voluntarily laying aside 
our best weapons of logic and evidence, 
thereby ensuring unawares modernism’s triumph over us.
— William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith

* The skit is from s5e16 on 4/12/80. The video is here (skip to 49:00), but Hulu Plus is required.

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 7/17/13.)

Image credit: Ben Sutherland, flickr, CC

 

September 16, 2016

Beatles Bible Paul is DeadHave you heard the “Paul is dead” rumor that started around the time of the release of the Beatles’ 1969 Abbey Road album? Paul McCartney had supposedly died and been replaced by a lookalike several years earlier. Fans eager for confirmation discovered clues in this and earlier albums.

  • The cover of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) shows the four Beatles dressed as if to a funeral. In flowers in the foreground is “Beatles” and a guitar—Paul’s instrument. The back cover shows the four Beatles with Paul the only one facing backwards.
  • The song “Revolution 9” on the White Album (1968) contains the phrase “number nine” repeated many times, but this becomes “turn me on, dead man” when played backwards. There are also clues in other songs.
  • The Abbey Road cover of the four Beatles crossing a street shows Paul (second from left) portrayed differently once again. He’s taking a step with his right foot, while the others are all stepping with the left foot. And here again, we have the elements of a funeral: George, wearing jeans, is dressed as a grave digger; Paul, with bare feet, is the dearly departed; Ringo, in black, is a mourner or the undertaker; and John, dressed in white, is the preacher or a heavenly symbol.

You tend to find what you seek, and fans have found many more clues, though Beatles publicists rejected the story.

What could explain this? Could there have been no deliberate clues at all in these albums? Of course! The covers could simply be enigmatic or artistic, with motivated fans cobbling together what seems to them to be clues. They could find their own meaning, even if none was put there by anyone.

Comparison with the Bible

We see this with Bible interpretation: you find what you seek. Anything that contradicts the Christian’s particular view of the gospel can be reinterpreted and made captive to that view.

  • The idea of the Trinity took four centuries to congeal, with many (now) heretical views discarded along the way. Still, the modern Christian might see the Trinity plain as day in the New Testament, even seeing Old Testament polytheism as instead referring to the Trinity.
  • Jesus talks about secrets: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand’” (Luke 8:9–10). “Secrets”? Mystery religions like Mithraism or Gnosticism have secrets available only to the initiated, but what aspects of Christianity are secret?
  • We find the influence of Marcion. “No one has seen the father but the son” (John 1:18) contradicts the stories of Abraham and Moses seeing God, unless you accept Marcionite thinking in which the father of Jesus is a different god than the one in the Old Testament.
  • Also consider Jesus’ comment to a mob: “Is it not written in your Law …” (John 10:34). “Your law”? Wouldn’t Jewish Jesus say that it was our law? Not if he comes from a different god.
  • John 20:26 says, “Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them.” This isdocetism, the heresy that Jesus had a spirit body and only seemed to be human.
  • Or consider the curious “the last will be first, and the first will be last” from Matthew 20:16. Sure, some bad people are at the top of pile, but aren’t there any good people who became rich or powerful by honest toil? Not according to apocalypticism, in which our world is ruled by the bad guy and the next world by the good guy. Anyone doing well in this world can only be doing so by being in league with the bad ruler, which is why everything is turned upside down in the next world.

Each of these odd ideas is absorbed, Borg-like, into the presupposition. Christianity becomes the ultimate unfalsifiable hypothesis.

Religious belief as conspiratorial thinking

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky talks about something similar, the “self-sealing” nature of conspiracy theories. Imagine an inflatable lifeboat in which any puncture would quickly seal itself: “Any evidence against the conspiracy is interpreted to be in actual fact evidence for the conspiracy.”

For example, consider the statement: The arguments claiming that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job are pretty laughable. Ah, that just shows that the 9/11 Truth movement itself is part of a bigger conspiracy!

If the U.S. moon landing was a hoax, the Soviets had the technology to discover it and would’ve been eager to point out the lie. Ah, that just shows that the Soviets were in on the hoax!

The resurrection of Jesus just steals an element from the stories of prior dying-and-rising gods. That it wasn’t new suggests that it was made up. Ah, but that’s exactly what Satan wants you to think! And why he put those stories into history—just to fool you. (This was Justin Martyr’s argument).

But what about the verses above that are nicely explained by our New Testament being a mosaic of ideas, the aftermath of a tug of war between many different ideologies? Ah, God is simply trying to test us! His message is plain to those with the right faith.

Someone determined to hold onto their presuppositions ride in a self-sealing ideological lifeboat, but they’ve also insulated themselves against any information showing their initial views to be wrong. This is not someone following the evidence.

I reject your reality and substitute my own.
— Doctor Who television show (1974)?

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 7/15/13.)

Image credit: John Hoey, flickr, CC

March 4, 2016

Antony Flew created waves with his 2007 book There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. He was a prominent atheist philosopher who converted to deism. Attacked or ignored before, Flew suddenly became a darling within many Christian circles and was celebrated by them as one of the 20th century’s most important philosophers.

Antony Flew, the Christian coup

A 2009 Greg Koukl podcast gives an example of this Christian reaction. Koukl blathered on about what a top-flight philosopher Flew was. He attacked the idea that Flew was losing it, as some atheists charged. “Just read his book and see,” he said. He said that scientists like Dawkins should feel privileged to be in the same room with a great philosopher like Flew. And so on.

Koukl is often motivating, and that was the case here. However, I doubt that it motivated me in the direction that he was expecting. In the first place, and you need only look at the cover (above) to see this, Flew wasn’t the author. It says “Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese.” Maybe Flew wrote most of it, but I doubt it. The “with” customarily means that the other guy wrote it all. Skeptic magazine argues that Flew wrote none of it.

There are other clues. This book is structured in a very different way than a typical nonfiction book in which someone lays out a thesis and then supports it with evidence. It has long summaries of the thinking of other people—Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and so on. No original thinking here, just summaries.

For example, it has a book report-like summary of part of Infinite Minds by John Leslie, which talks about quantum laws and special relativity. Flew’s background gives no indication that he was comfortable with this kind of science, and even if he was, who cares? He wasn’t a physicist or even a science journalist, and he brings no authority to his analysis of physics.

There are also lots of places like this: “In my new introduction to the 2005 edition of God and Philosophy, I said, ‘I am myself delighted …’” (p. 123). Flew was reduced to quoting himself? No, this is Flew’s work being mined by a third party.

Another example: “In The Presumption of Atheism and other atheistic writings, I argued that we must take the universe itself …” (p. 134). Here again he’s referring to himself as if he were another person. The book is peppered with this structure. It looks exactly as it would if someone (I don’t know … maybe someone like Roy Abraham Varghese?) were told to write a book-length essay on someone else’s philosophy and tried to couch it as if written by the great man himself.

Was Flew losing it in his waning years?

Here’s how Flew summarized his new position in a 2007 video:

If the integrated complexity of the physical world is a good reason, as Einstein clearly thought it was, of believing that there was an intelligence behind it, then this argument applies a fortiori [even more strongly] with the inordinately greater integrated complexity of the living world.

Let’s step through Flew’s argument.

  1. Einstein is really smart. True, but this is an irrelevant appeal to authority.
  2. Einstein said that there’s an intelligence behind the physical world. False, but even if he did, so what? A really smart guy says that there’s a god behind the curtain, pulling the levers of reality, so therefore it must be so?
  3. As complex as the physical world is, the living world is much more so.
  4. If there’s intelligence behind the physical world, there’s even more reason to believe that about the far more complex biological world. Complexity doesn’t demand design. A pile of straw is complex (imagine documenting each piece), but it wasn’t designed.

Flew approvingly mentioned Einstein’s reluctance to go “where [he] didn’t have any authority at all and wasn’t inclined (reasonably enough) to talk about it.” Too bad Flew himself didn’t follow that advice!

The relevance of Flew’s conversion

Let’s return to Koukl’s point about Dawkins vs. Flew, that Dawkins should feel privileged to be in the same room with such a great philosopher. The book itself shows the ridiculousness of this complaint. In the beginning of the conclusion chapter, it lists “the three items of evidence we have considered in this volume—the laws of nature, life with its teleological organization, and the existence of the universe.” These three are all squarely in the domain of science! Now who’s the interloper into a field that he’s unqualified to critique?

If Varghese wants to spin Flew’s works or glean a theistic argument out of Flew’s writings, that’s fine, but what did Flew himself add to this project besides give permission? The image comes to mind of someone helping a senile old man sign his name to the release form. One critic of the book said, “Far from strengthening the case for the existence of God, [the book] rather weakens the case for the existence of Antony Flew.”

If a man stands by [the Bible], vote for him.
If he doesn’t, don’t.
— Jerry Falwell Sr.

Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders
on how to run a country.
Jerry Falwell Jr.

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/3/13.)

July 3, 2015

Let’s conclude our critique of Eric Hyde’s analysis of atheist arguments, “Top 10 Most Common Atheist Arguments, and Why They Fail.” (Begin with part 1 here.)

“8. History is full of mother-child messiah cults, trinity godheads, and the like. Thus the Christian story is a myth like the rest.”

There’s a lot of straw-manning with the formulation of this and other arguments. I’ve never heard an atheist talk about supernatural story elements seen in other mythologies and then conclude that, because Christianity has them too, it must be a myth. Rather, we conclude that Christianity springing from a culture suffused with stories of dying-and-rising gods, virgin births, and other miracles suggests that Christianity is no more historically accurate than they are. Remember that Palestine was at the crossroads of Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome. The early Christian authors would be quite familiar with the supernatural tales from surrounding lands.

A counterfeit coin does not prove the non-existence of the authentic coin, it proves the exact opposite.

Counterfeits always follow the real thing. The resurrection of Jesus followed the resurrection of Dionysus. Any questions? (More here and here.)

At this point in the argument, other apologists usually yield as little as possible and emphasize the differences between the Jesus resurrection and the rebirth of Dionysus, the Jesus virgin birth story and the godly parentage of Alexander the Great, and so on. (Of course the stories are different! If the Jesus story were identical to that of Dionysus, we’d call him “Dionysus.”) But Hyde admits that many of the supernatural story elements are common.

It seems only natural that if the advent of Christ was real it would permeate through the consciousness of mankind on some level regardless of their place in history. One should expect to find mankind replicating these stories, found in their own visions and dreams, again and again throughout history. And indeed, that is what we find.

Is he declaring that all roads lead to God?

He imagines that the key elements of the Jesus story magically suffused through cultures, long before the Christian era. That’s a rather desperate attempt to salvage the story, and I’d like to see some evidence for this. But why grope for a supernatural explanation when the natural one leaves nothing unaddressed: Christianity broke away as a new religion just like countless others do, and it took on elements of the surrounding culture. Remember that the entire New Testament was written in Greek, and it couldn’t help but take on elements of the wider culture as it was passed orally for decades in Greek culture before being written down as the gospels.

“9. The God of the Bible is evil. A God who allows so much suffering and death can be nothing but evil.”

This is the Problem of Evil, and Hyde agrees that it’s a powerful argument. He responds with the popular appeal to objective moral truth.

The argument takes as its presupposition that good and evil are real; that there is an ultimate standard of good and evil that supersedes mere fanciful “ideas” about what is good and evil.

He imagines that objective morality—morality that is true whether or not there’s anyone here to appreciate it—exists, and the atheist knows it. The tables are turned, and the atheist must acknowledge God as the grounding of his morality.

Nope. I need evidence for this objective morality, and Hyde provides none. He just asserts it with his reference to an “ultimate standard.”

It’s weird for someone who does not believe in ultimate good and evil to condemn God as evil because He did not achieve their personal vision of good.

Who decides what my moral beliefs are but me? I’ll grant that I’m an imperfect judge, but the buck stops here. I’m all I’ve got, and that’s true for everyone else.

The same goes for claims of God’s existence. When you consider the evil that God does in the Old Testament, does this look like the actions of an all-good god? We don’t presuppose God and then hammer the facts to fit; we evaluate the claims to see if the evidence points there. And Christianity fails with this mismatch between the claims of an all-good god versus reality and their own holy book.

“10. Evolution has answered the question of where we came from. There is no need for ignorant ancient myths anymore.”

He says that the evolution vs. Creationism debate is where we see the Christian challenge to science most clearly played out. His strawman version of the atheist argument is that science will eventually answer all questions about reality. This isn’t my position; I simply say that science has a remarkable track record for teaching us about reality, while religion has taught us absolutely nothing. Religion makes claims—that there is life after death, for example—but these are always without sufficient evidence.

Hyde declares that he has lost all interest in the debate and says, “Usually both sides of the debate use large amounts of dishonesty in order to gain points.” What’s dishonest about the evolution side? It’s the overwhelming scientific consensus. As laymen, we can gnash our teeth about that consensus, but we’re still obliged to accept it as the best provisional explanation that we have.

(Just to put the final nail in this coffin, I’ve included an appendix below of many sources, both from within the scientific community as well as from evolution deniers, making clear that evolution is the consensus.)

He goes on to get confused about what evolution claims and doesn’t claim. In the interest of time, I’ll give my responses and let you imagine the claims: there are no serious objections to evolution; evolution doesn’t claim to explain the origin of life—that’s abiogenesis; the Big Bang is also well-established science, though it doesn’t overlap evolution at all; and yes, science unashamedly has unanswered questions—working on those is where new knowledge comes from.

Since science has the track record, I suggest we look to it for answers, not religion.

Hyde wraps up with something of a Non-Overlapping Magesteria kind of argument:

Science is fantastic if you want to know what gauge wire is compatible with a 20 amp electric charge, how agriculture works, what causes disease and how to cure it, and a million other things. But where the physical sciences are completely lacking is in those issues most important to human beings—the truly existential issues: what does it mean to be human, why are we here, what is valuable, what does it mean to love, to hate, what am I to do with guilt, grief, sorrow, what does it mean to succeed, is there any meaning and what does ‘meaning’ mean, and, of course, is there a God?

Yes, religion does have answers to “What is my purpose?” and “Is there an afterlife?” and other existential questions. But take a look at a map of world religions and you’ll see the problem: religion’s answer depends on where you live in the world! Religions are just local customs. Sure, they have answers, but why think they’re any more objectively true than the local customs on when a gentleman should remove his hat or which utensil to use to eat your salad?

And science does have answers to many of these questions: there’s no evidence of a transcendental purpose to your life, so you’d better get busy assigning your own; there’s no evidence of an afterlife, so you might want to get used to that; and so on.

Science has answers; it’s just that the Christian doesn’t like them.

You either have a god who sends child rapists to rape children
or you have a god who simply watches and says:
“When you’re done I’m going to punish you.”
If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would.
That’s the difference between me and your god.
— Tracie Harris, The Atheist Experience

Image credit: Herbert Rudeen, flickr, CC

Appendix: Evolution is the scientific consensus

  • Evolution is one of the most robust and widely accepted principles of modern science.Source: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2006
  • There is no longer a debate among scientists about whether evolution has taken place.Source: National Science Teachers Association
  • “Evolution is not only universally accepted by scientists; it has also been accepted by the leaders of most of the world’s major religions.” Source: National Academy of Sciences, 1999.
  • “Based on compelling evidence, the overwhelming majority of scientists and science educators accept evolution as the most reasonable explanation for the current diversity of life on earth and the set of processes that has led to this diversity.” Source: Joint statement of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council, and National Science Teachers Association, 2001
  • In response to “Don’t many famous scientists reject evolution?”: “No. The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming. Those opposed to the teaching of evolution sometimes use quotations from prominent scientists out of context to claim that scientists do not support evolution. However, examination of the quotations reveals that the scientists are actually disputing some aspect of how evolution occurs, not whether evolution occurred.” Source: Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, 1999
  • “Darwin presented compelling evidence for evolution in On the Origin and, since his time, the case has become overwhelming. Countless fossil discoveries allow us to trace the evolution of today’s organisms from earlier forms. DNA sequencing has confirmed beyond any doubt that all living creatures share a common origin. Innumerable examples of evolution in action can be seen all around us, from the pollution-matching pepper moth to fast-changing viruses such as HIV and H5N1 bird flu. Evolution is as firmly established a scientific fact as the roundness of the Earth.Source: NewScientist magazine, 2008.
  • “…Our magazine’s positions on evolution and intelligent design (ID) creationism reflect those of the scientific mainstream (that is, evolution: good science; ID: not science).” Source: the editor in chief of Scientific American, 2008
  • “When theories about chemical & biological evolutions (to produce life & complex life) are examined and evaluated, in the scientific community we see a majority consensus and a dissenting minority.” Source: American Scientific Affiliation: A Fellowship of Christians in Science
  • “Research!America supports the scientific community’s unanimous position that intelligent design does not meet the criteria of a scientific concept and thus should not be presented as one in the classroom. Evolution is backed by a substantial body of scientific evidence, whereas intelligent design is a matter of belief and not subject to proof.” Source: Research!America

Even the evolution deniers at least admit that evolution is the scientific consensus.

  • “If there is so much evidence for creation and against naturalistic evolution, why do the majority of scientists believe in evolution? … A number of young and old alike seem perplexed that the creation evidences presented seem so easy to understand—so logical, so obvious—and yet the majority of scientists still profess that the evidence ‘obviously’ fits with evolution.” Source: Ken Ham, Institute for Creation Research.
  • Evolution-rejecting scientists are in a minority.” Source: Jonathan Sarfati, Creation Ministries International.
  • “You are claiming that the church should adopt the scientific consensus today (on evolution and long ages)” Source: Jonathan Sarfati, Creation Ministries International.
  • “It is clear from U.S. Supreme Court precedents that the Constitution permits both the teaching of evolution as well as the teaching of scientific criticisms of prevailing scientific theories.” Source: Discovery Institute
  • Of course, the ‘scientific consensus’ now holds that Darwinian evolution is true.” Source: Discovery Institute
September 8, 2014

problem of evilThis is the conclusion of a response to an article about the Problem of Evil by apologist Mikel Del Rosario (read part 1 of this response here).

Del Rosario raises three points. Let’s continue with his point #2.

2. The Problem of Evil Doesn’t Mean There’s No God

The Christian worldview gives us another option that atheists often leave out of the equation. … God can have good reasons for allowing evil—even if we don’t know what those reasons are.

This error is so common that it needs a name, so I’ll name it: the Hypothetical God Fallacy. Sure, if we presuppose an omniscient God, this gets us out of every possible jam in which God looks bad. Banda Aceh tsunami? God could’ve had good reasons. A young mother, beloved in her community, dies suddenly and leaves behind a husband and three children? A result of God’s good reasons. Genocide demanded and slavery accepted in the Old Testament? World War? Plane crash? Missing keys?

God.

This short article is peppered with this fallacy. React to it as an allergen:

If God is good and evil exists …

The mere fact that I can’t figure out why God allows some of the things to happen that he does … is not warrant for the conclusion that he’s got no such reasons.

It actually takes some humility to admit the role of human finiteness in understanding why God allows evil.

Just because something might seem pointless to us, doesn’t mean God can’t have a morally justified reason for it.

Yes, bad things in the world don’t force the conclusion that God can’t exist. Fortunately, I don’t draw such a conclusion. And yes, if God exists, he could have his reasons for things that we don’t understand.

The Hypothetical God Fallacy is a fallacy because no one interested in the truth starts with a conclusion (God exists) and then arranges the facts to support that conclusion. That’s backwards. Rather, the truth seeker starts with the facts and then follows them to their conclusion. (I’ve written more here.)

If God exists, he could have terrific reasons for why there’s so much gratuitous evil in the world. The same could be true for the Invisible Pink Unicorn (glitter be upon Him). Neither approach does anything to support a belief chosen beforehand.

3. The Problem of Evil Isn’t Just a Christian Problem

The Problem of Evil isn’t just a Christian problem. Evil is everybody’s problem!

Then you don’t know what the Problem of Evil is, because it is precisely just a Christian problem. The Problem of Evil asks, How can a good God allow all the gratuitous evil we see in our world? Drop the God presupposition, and the problem goes away.

You could ask the different question, How does an atheist explain the bad in the world? Quick answer: shit happens. Some is bad luck (mechanical problem causes a car accident), some is natural (flood), some is caused by other people (jerky coworker badmouths you to the boss and you don’t get the promotion), and some is caused by you (you didn’t bother getting the flood insurance). Adding God to the equation explains nothing and introduces the Problem of Evil so that you’re worse off than when you started.

Del Rosario again:

If atheism is true, there’s no basis for objective moral values and duties.

Sounds right, but why imagine that objective moral values exist, besides wishful thinking? What many apologists perceive as objective moral values are actually just shared moral values. That we share moral values isn’t too surprising since we’re all the same species. Nothing supernatural is required.

Del Rosario stumbles over another issue with morality.

You couldn’t have any kind of real, moral grounding to call it objectively evil—if atheism is true.

He’s using “real” to mean ultimate or objective. And here again, the ball’s in his court to convince us of his remarkable claim that objective morality exists and that everyone can access it. (Suggestion: find a resolution to the abortion problem that is universally acceptable. If there’s not a single correct resolution then it’s not an objective moral truth, and if we can’t reliably access it, then it’s useless.)

As for the ordinary, everyday sort of moral grounding, the kind that both Christians and atheists use, you’ll find that in the dictionary. Look up “morality,” and you’ll read nothing about objective grounding.

We have one final challenge:

The atheist position’s got another problem to deal with: The Problem of Good. In other words, naturalism has the challenge of providing a sufficient moral grounding for goodness itself—in addition to making sense of evil in the world. And that’s a pretty tall order for a philosophy with absolutely no room for God.

What’s difficult? We’re good because of evolution. We’re social animals, like wolves and chimpanzees, so we have cooperative traits like honesty, cooperation, sympathy, trustworthiness, and so on.

The God hypothesis adds nothing to the conversation, and we must watch out for it being smuggled in as a presupposition. And we’re back where we started from, wondering where the good Christian arguments are.

You don’t need religion to have morals.
If you can’t determine right from wrong
then you lack empathy, not religion.
(seen on the internet)

Photo credit: Wikipedia

July 17, 2013

In 1977, the Dr Pepper soft drink was promoted with the slogan, “Be a Pepper.”

The marketing campaign behind that slogan had television commercials with hip, cheerful, attractive people dancing through life with the lines,

I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper,
She’s a Pepper, we’re a Pepper,
Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?
Be a Pepper. Drink Dr Pepper.

Parody

A few years later, the Saturday Night Live sketch comedy TV show did a skit* with Laraine Newman playing a teenage girl named Jennifer, sitting on the floor in the family room with the telephone. She calls up strangers from the phone book and encourages them to drink Dr Pepper and asks, “Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?” She gets the polite brush-off that you’d expect from such a marketing call.

After listening to a few of these calls, her parents tell her that she’s changed ever since she became a Pepper. She’s always at Pepper meetings or calling strangers on the phone or going door to door to encourage people to drink Dr Pepper. She doesn’t see her old friends anymore.

After the father says that it would be different if she got paid, she says, “A Pepper would never accept money for this!”

It’s like she’s in a religious cult. What could be crazier? We have consumers of a commercial product spending their own time and resources increasing the sales of that product, with the only compensation being accolades from fellow believers or perhaps just the knowledge that important work had to be done, and they pitched in to help.

Christianity

We’re more familiar with earnest evangelists within Christianity, but that doesn’t make them any more sensible. They’re told to get out and increase Christianity’s market share, and many do it without pay. Does this make any more sense than Jennifer’s project?

Would you be motivated if the paid staff of Dr Pepper encouraged you to spread the word? Why be any more motivated if the paid staff of the Catholic church or Baptist church or Lutheran church made the same request?

The Great Commission

The typical response is that Christians are obliged to spread the word, but average Christians shouldn’t flatter themselves that Jesus gave them the Great Commission. The gospel of Matthew ends with the eleven disciples at an offsite with Jesus. Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18), but this was clearly addressed to those eleven disciples.

To Christians who think that evangelism is important, remember that it was important to Jennifer, too. Is your project any better supported by logic?

Satan deceives us into voluntarily laying aside
our best weapons of logic and evidence,
thereby ensuring unawares modernism’s triumph over us.
— William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith

* The skit is from s5e16 on 4/12/80. The video is here (skip to 49:00), but Hulu Plus is required.

Photo credit: Rally House

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