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Further thoughts concerning ‘An Atheist on the Alpha Course’

Following my recent attendance at ‘An Atheist on the Alpha Course’ presentation  at Winchester Skeptics group by Simon Clare, I have done a bit more research and reflection. He acknowledged in passing that some Christians did not think much of the course as they thought it oversimplified orthodox (small ‘o’) Christian doctrine. From my limited researches, this seems to be so, up to a point.

A Google search found amongst other observations on Alpha the following item.

http://www.deceptioninthechurch.com/alpha.html under the not very cryptical banner ‘deception in the church’. This thoughtful essay by Tricia Tillin speaks of ‘post-Christian neo-mysticism’ and warns of the dangers of the so called Toronto Blessing which seems to have profoundly influenced Nicky Gumbel, the man most associated with the development and roll out of Alpha. I have seen the ‘Toronto Blessing’ and it sucks. There is some half hearted approval of Alpha which as acknowledged (as reported by Simon Clare) does present the message of Christ’s death for our sins, but asks (A) why do we need to ‘buy in’ Alpha to do this, and (B) what excess baggage comes with it?

Tillin writes

‘Alpha certainly starts by preaching the Gospel; the first three talks on video one focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the three talks on video two cover fundamental steps for new Christians, such as ‘How can I be sure of my faith?’, ‘Why and how should I read the Bible?’ and ‘Why and how should I pray?’ are all good. but as the course progresses, some of the talks tend to wander of into lengthy accounts of HTB’s (Holy Trinity Brompton) experiences of the Toronto Blessing and associates ministries, novel exegeses of various Biblical passages common among pro-Toronto preachers, all of which are less than helpful, to say the least, to potential Christians.

Clearly the aim is to bring as many into God’s Kingdom as possible but by the end of the course I cannot help feeling that the Toronto Blessing may have been the greater beneficiary.’

 

Tillin offers the story of a woman who left a church and set up a group meeting in her own home because she refused to ‘..snort like a pig and bark like a dog.‘ This reminded me of the notorious 1960 anti Christian film ‘Elmer Gantry’ which as the Wikipedia (linked) article describes, concerns ‘..a con man and a female evangelist selling religion to small town America.’ Incidentally, how many folks today know what ‘the sin of simony’ is? More about simony later. I remember being profoundly disturbed by this film which I watched on TV as a child. Since this kind of perversion exists (and always has) I wish someone had explained it to me, but growing up in a Catholic home, all Protestantism was equally of the devil in my father’s eyes. All I was ever told about it was that it was wrong.

elmer gantry

A perhaps more balanced criticism of Alpha from the Evangelical Christian angle can be found on the Got Questions? Christian apologetics site.  The item begins by saying

 ‘This article takes a very cautious view of the Alpha Course. We do recognise however that the Alpha Course has been a tremendous help to many Christians. Many people have come to faith in Jesus Christ though it. Many more have been strengthened in their faith and knowledge of God’s Word through it.’

So why the concerns? because, as they go on to say

‘The problem is that the Alpha Course can be very different depending on the church/organization that is using it. In the hands of a solidly evangelical teacher, the Alpha Course can be excellent. In the hands of someone trying to push beliefs and practices that are biblically questionable, the Alpha Course can be used to indoctrinate and mislead.’

That seems to fit in well with Simon Clare’s criticisms. The ‘Got Questions?’ article goes on to succinctly chronicle some of the doubtful to false doctrines and questionable practices of Alpha, while stressing (as do other commentators) that much good Christian truth is at the heart of Alpha and that the content and tone of the course depends very much on who is leading it.

The final paragraph states

”Again, as with any course or teaching, we must be diligent and discerning. We must diligently study God’s Word on our own and reject anything which contradicts the Bible. We must be discerning in evaluating the qualifications of the person or people teaching the course.”

Read more:http://www.gotquestions.org/Alpha-Course.html#ixzz3SkGNxOKI

the cartoon below depicts the decidedly dodgy revivalist Todd Bentley.

todd heresy strange fire

In a useful discussion on the gift of tongues the Biblical phenomenon of speaking in tongues (described particularly in Acts chapter 2) and the modern phenomenon of glossolalia. I was involved in the latter during my time in a Charismatic church and I am now quite certain that it was a learned behaviour encouraged by the leadership which had to do with religious enthusiasm and group identity.  As a line from a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee classic  ‘Sporting life blues’  goes ‘I was young and foolish, and easy led astray.’ I don’t it was either the Holy Spirit or the devil, I think it was emotional manipulation among mostly young Christian people who were hungry for a manifestation of God and religious excitement who found this sort of thing much more to their taste than boring old Bible study, prayer and sound doctrine. See 2 Timothy 4:3. I had reached this conclusion independently and abandoned the practice of glossolalia some years before hearing Simon Clare, but still found it painful to hear someone washing this particular item dirty linen in public. It has to be owned up to, but also put in context.

So, was Simon Clare telling the truth about the Alpha Course?  

Yes and no. Credit to him, he was open about his atheism and desire to turn people away from God and Christ, converting them to atheism. However, that doesn’t detract from any faults he has found with Alpha. He is not the first to have found these faults, they are documented in the 2 links I have posted above, many more critical views from within the wider Christian church can be found. The church I am now committed to runs its own ‘Introduction to Christianity’ courses which absolutely do not rely on the kind of ‘cheap stage magic’ that Clare rightly deplores. So ‘An Atheist on the Alpha Course’ perhaps isn’t quite the big news story it might be seen as. Nor was it entirely representative of all Alpha courses everywhere, and nor am I going to condemn Alpha out of hand. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:2 ‘I have become all things to all men so that by all means I might save some.’ and that by the way is not an endorsement of any form of dishonesty or misrepresentation, for Paul wrote later to the same audience ‘We are not like so many peddlers of God’s word, but with sincerity we preach the word of Christ with God watching us’ (2 Corinthians 2:17.) 

One thing I noted Clare say was that Jesus had some very good things to say, but only as judged against Clare’s ‘humanism’. But what exactly is ‘humanism’? Presumably a godless philosophy, one among many. Clare was quite clear about his belief in big bang cosmology and molecules to man evolution and that we were coming from nowhere and going to nothing. He also stated his belief, consistent with Dawkins (whom he said was a hero) that we have no free will but followed biological determinism. In that materialist context, what of humanism or any other philosophy? Can it be any more than a personal preference, a meme? Perhaps just as good or bad and as based on emotionalism and group thinking as the worst excesses Simon Clare criticises in the Alpha Course.

Who is Simon Clare to judge the moral worth of Jesus, or indeed of anyone, according to an abstract standard of his own preference? This  seems to me an attempt to put a pseudo Christian gloss on the nihilism/hedonism that absolute materialism logically implies. Pure materialism is not a very attractive creed to live by.

I may return to this reflection later but now need to get breakfast and go to the orchard to split some logs. Oh yes the sin of simony….you can read about it in Acts chapter 8. Simon Magus was (apparently) a Christian convert who offered the Apostles money in return for spiritual power, that he could use to make more money. He was severely rebuked by the Apostle Peter. He gave his name to the sin of simony which is about using religion as a means of making profit. This heinous sin is referred to several times in the New Testament. 1 Peter ch 2 vss 1-3 describes false teachers ‘who will exploit you (KJV- will make merchandise of you) with deceptive words’, also Mathew 7 :5 where Jesus says ‘Beware of false prophets, they come to you in sheep’s clothing but inside are ravening wolves’  and as Paul said when he was leaving a church he had established and built up in Ephesus ‘For this I know, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.’  Many other similar warnings could be added. This isn’t new, indeed it has often been said that one of the things that adds credibility to the Bible is its unflinching depiction of the weaknesses and failings of most of its heroes.

So, the New Testament  is quite clear that false teachers and exploiters will arise attempting to destroy the church from within, some of them totally wicked, others merely misled to greater or lesser degrees. That is why Christians need to watch and pray at all times, as Jesus commanded. A Sovereign God can use opponents of Christianity like Simon Clare to point this out if church leaders are failing in their duty to do so.

I beg you to be reconciled to God through Christ.

Ex Machina film review

ava-from-ex-machina-borg

I wrote this the day after seeing the film, been busy, just finished editing and posted.

There are 2 films showing at the moment about the creation of humanoid robots/androids with artificial intelligence (AI). I saw one ‘Ex Machina’ last night and saw the trailer for the other ‘Chappie’. I don’t feel inclined to watch ‘Chappie’, which looked from the trailer pretty much a remake of  ‘Short circuit’. In both cases, the AI creation was described as being  ‘the next stage in evolution’. This use of language is worthy of comment.

Of course, there is a long history in science fiction and fantasy writing and film making of robots/androids who are very clever and can think and hold conversations. Without taxing myself I can think of Robbie the robot in the seminal sci-fi classic ‘Forbidden planet’ from around 1955, Isaac Asimov’s ‘I, Robot’, Marvin the paranoid android from Douglas Adams’ great sci-fi spoof ‘The Hitch hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, the cute little robots in ‘Silent Running’ and ‘Wall-E’ which was undoubtedly derivative of Silent Running. There are many others, including an oblique reference to artificial sex partners in C S Lewis’s ‘fairy tale for grown ups’ ‘That Hideous Strength’. So ‘Ex Machina’ is very much the latest twist on an old genre.

I appreciate sci fi and fantasy, and like any other fan I know full well that one has to willingly suspend disbelief when profoundly implausible technologies are deployed in the interest of good storytelling. So I won’t bother with a full technical review of the things on the film which obviously wouldn’t work in real life. But it was interesting in a brief chat with friends after the film how many thought that we might be no more than decades away from artificial intelligence. For pity’s sake, while we have rulers making insane political and economic decisions that doom nations it would be nice to have a bit more intelligence in live humans. I digress (but not much).

Caution plot spoilers

Ex Machina is a visually stunning and very watchable film despite there being only 3 main characters. 95% of the action takes place in or just outside the astonishing mainly subterranean home of the fabulously wealthy inventor Nathan which is located 2 hours helicopter ride in a mountainous wilderness. The mountains, glacier and river provide beautiful backdrops to several fascinating conversations.

Nathan lives there apparently alone with a female servant whom we are told speaks no English for security reasons. The young programmer from Nathan’s vast IT/mobile phone company wins a trip to the bosses home, but finds he has been brought there to carry out a ‘Turing test’ on the android, to see if she can really pass for human through interaction.

It seems that the android Ava has indeed acquired intelligence, a personality, and during a power outage that she has deliberately caused ( to disable the cameras that record their conversations) she confides to Caleb that ‘Nathan is not your friend’. It becomes clear that she wants to live and be free and suspects that she is going to be terminated. Her actions to prevent this deliver some very clever plot developments. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the plot.

ex-machina-trailer-590x312

The film is amongst other things a vehicle for philosophical ideas about who we are as humans and what intelligence, humanity, consciousness, freedom and love are. I was struck by the faith expressed in Ex Machina that clever men will soon, ‘inevitably’ as Nathan says, create intelligent androids. ‘Not if, but when.‘Nathan suggests that the future belongs to AI (think of the ’Terminator’ and ‘Matrix’ series of films) and that future AI beings ‘..will look back on humans as we look back on African ancestors using stone tools on the plains of Africa.’

All very deterministic, materialistic and evolutionary. This makes  a kind of sense within a materialistic context. If we evolved from space dust via pond slime andwithout meaning or consequence and simply cease at death, then why would it matter if  we humans were displaced by AI beings and rendered extinct? If we reject the Creator God and instead accept as a certain fact that we got here by a series of accidents (random mutations acting on natural selection in a struggle for life in which the strong eat the weak) then this will inevitably affect our world view, the things we think, and how we live and act.

I think the film understates the problems of creating an artificial brain by many, many, many orders of magnitude. On one level, OK-its only a film, category science fantasy. But on another level, when we see a flying horse or talking mouse as in C S Lewis’ Narnia stories we know we are watching fantasy, while this comes over as real. Film

s like Ex Machina present us with the prospect that creating a living humanoid is a realistically possible scientific achievement. Perhaps this is supposed to make it emotionally easier for folks to accept that life is nothing special and could have evolved, but even on that levels its nonsense, since what we see here is top end intelligent design (and beyond implausible at that.)

A watchable and thoughtful film, but one whose message needs to be evaluated in the light of the prevailing evolutionist assumptions that shape the world view of so many of us. If as I am convinced those assumptions are utterly false, then building our dreams and even basing our fears on them will lead us badly astray.

‘Controversial’ bishops’ pre-election letter

welby

The MSM (main stream media) is buzzing today with talk about a 52 page open letter by the English bishops ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Reactions vary, but most of what I heard reported or scanned on a brief Google was mild to moderate disapproval, whether from Conservatives who feel misrepresented, misunderstood and got at, or from the general public who find the Church boring and irrelevant. Labour supporters and those who think that the message of Jesus was essentially ‘Be nice to each other and set up a generous Welfare State’ were most positive

There is a link to the letter from the BBC item linked to below.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-31499189

I have read the full letter and what struck me most about it was its insufferable blandness. The tone is of damp social democracy and an attempt to induce guilt in anyone thinking of voting Conservative or (Giles Frazer forbid) UKIP. If they wanted to encourage people to vote Labour because they believe that big tax, big government and redistribution are Christian imperatives, why couldn’t they just say so? (and of course prove their case from Scripture). Likewise, if they believe in unilateral nuclear disarmanent, as the letter suggests, why don’t they just say so? Likewise, if they believe in open ended immigration, why not say so plainly rather than drop bland hints about ‘scapegoating’ and ‘community cohesion’?

Instead of anything distinctively Christian, we have 52 pages of bland waffle, with the official English Church’s name on it. It reads like an essay from a Guardian reading liberal lady curate with a sociology degree who is trying to be generally encouraging and uplifting without saying anything precise enough to offend anyone. The main impression is of a half hearted attempt to induce guilt in anyone who still believes in the so called Protestant Work Ethic. A trumpet blast calling for national repentance, it aint.

I am definitely not against Christian leaders speaking into national politics, far from it-although their main work is and must always be calling sinners to repentance, faith and Christian discipleship. To be fair, this does happen-and is not much reported as the MSM prefers controversy. However, if the C of E is going to sally forth into national politics, among subjects on which it might legitimately have a view and on which the letter is silent (unless I missed them in which case may i be corrected) are

-the persecution of Christians world wide, and their growing State-sponsored harrassment in Britain (as exemplified in the Leslie Pilkington and Ashers’ bakery cases)

-gambling (helping to keep poor folks poor)

-the cruel effects of supermarket cartels on milk farmers (Fair Trade begins at home)

-abortion and other harms resulting from sexual libertinism

-the continuing destruction of lifelong monogamous marriage including so called same sex marriage

-the manifold and demonstrable harms to children growing up in fatherless households (apart from a brief mention of ‘single parents’ in the context of saying they should be given more free money at the taxpayers’ expense)

-over regulation and other harmful effects on small business (a bedrock of liberty)

-the growing move towards legal mercy killing

-the debate about legalising cannabis and other harmful recreational drugs

-Islamification

-free speech including freedom to question, even insult, ALL religions and secularist viewpoints

-evolutionist and sexual libertarianist indoctrination in schools

Now there’s some stuff in there that WOULD cause real offence, but better to offend (for the right reasons) than to bore people comatose with bland waffle.

What offends me about this letter most is not its assumption that big government tax and spend policies are the default position for a Christian, (which by the way, if you read the Bible rather than The Guardian, they aren’t) but its squandering of the Church’s accumulated (but diminishing) stock of credibility on something so indistinguishable from a Guardian editorial. The more often the C of E comes out with this sort of banal expedition into general national politics, the less validity it will be seen as having when saying something distinctively Christian-for example-repent of your adulteries, murders, idolatries and thefts (Revelation 9:21).

PS The Guido Fawkes blog reveals that Richard Chapman, one of the Archbishop’s political advisers has a long record of working for left wing Labour MPs.

Horus borus

The Christian who wishes as part of their loving duty to point fellow sinners to eternal happiness by seeking to correct and refute various on line untruths, distractions and stink bombs designed and deployed to oppose the Christian message must budget his or her time carefully, or else they could spend 16 hours a day at it. I have just disengaged, at least temporarily, from a particular Facebook discussion group as it had become clear that certain persons were going to continue posting misleading, re-hashed, many times already answered questions until the other posters had given up correcting them or died of boredom. So its almost refreshing to see the old Horus story is still doing the rounds.

Having said that, it is a very tired old story. Basically, the myth/meme asserts that the story of Jesus was borrowed from the Egyptian myth about Horus. As generally told, Horus is said to have been a god-man, born of a virgin on 25th December, had 12 disciples, etc, etc and obviously the whole Christian narrative must have been stolen from this older story. There isn’t any evidence of course, but if you don’t want the story of Jesus to be true, for example if you’re quite fond of adultery and believe strongly in your own autonomy, and generally detest the idea of having to obey and worship God, it’s a useful aid to unbelief. Handy little smoke bomb to throw at Christians if they’ve already given you decent answers to ‘What about…Galileo, the Inquisition, the Crusades….’and a few other standard ripostes. If, in an internet discussion, someone throws in ‘Jesus is just a copy of Horus!’ of course its trash, but it takes quite a while to explain why. This handy little item on the Come Reason  site makes it easier.

horus-jesus-myth

Refreshing my memory on the Horus distraction tactic reminded me of Sir James Frazer’s 1922 book ‘The Golden Bough’ which sought to undermine Christianity by comparing it with numerous pagan ‘dying and resurrecting god’ cults. I wrote a brief essay about this a few years back which is on Kindle in ‘Three Men in a Hut and Other Essays’. The essays were inspired by an ambush at a dinner party which I describe in the book. I post it unaltered apart from minor grammatical corrections

 

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The Pagan connection: The Golden Bough

There is a rather interesting 1922 book by Sir James Frazer, a Fellow of the Royal Society, called ‘The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic and Religion’. I mention it as The Golden Bough remains a highly influential source of subtly anti-Christian ideas and beliefs: although not that many people today have read it, a lot of people have picked up ideas from it by osmosis. Some of these ideas were flung out at the dinner party in question and I have heard them often elsewhere so I thought I’d devote a couple of paragraphs .

‘The Golden Bough’ is one of those seminal books like ‘Origin of Species’ that many people have picked up ideas from but few people have actually read. A lot of the content is description of various global pagan religions with an emphasis on festivals, rituals and the idea of a dying and resurrecting god, which obviously Christianity is asserted to have borrowed. I have explained elsewhere why this view is not supported by evidence. Frazer seeks to establish the connection, for example by citing the now very well known facts that Christmas was not celebrated by the early church and that 25th December is the date of the old Roman festival of the rebirth of the invincible sun, the winter solstice.

I remember 40 years ago seeing a young Irish Catholic woman visibly upset when she was informed that 25th December was not our Lord’s actual birthday but the date of an old winter festival celebrating the passing of the shortest day of the year. Incidentally, this is a vital concept in Christian apologetics-we need to get our facts straight and avoid fighting the wrong battles!  PS Knowing this, I still celebrate the Nativity of our Lord on 25th December, but I hold it lightly. As part of our family celebrations we eat and drink with loved ones, exchange inexpensive presents and give a sum of money commensurate with our spend on festivities to deserving charities in the name of Jesus. I also enjoy a seasonal rest and time of reflection after a year of hard work, and yes, I share the joy of all men, including pagans, that the days are getting lighter from now on. I do not believe this is any more pagan than enjoying a sunrise, going ice skating or visiting an art exhibition. The precise date of the birth at Bethlehem is of limited significance, the fact of it is immeasurably worth celebrating.

Frazer’s main argument, although writing in 1922 he was very careful not to state it too explicitly, is that Christianity is just another of the dozens of superstitions about a dying and resurrecting deity, many of which are connected with growing crops, particularly corn. Think of the song ‘John Barleycorn. ’ Christianity happens to have become, so the assertion goes, the most successful of such myths, but that’s all it is. The Golden Bough chronicles numerous pagan religions from all over the world and the whole of recorded human history, describing various rituals connected with sowing and harvesting corn ‘the bread of life’, some involving the sacrifice of a specially chosen person, in many cases their body being cut up and perhaps consumed. Clearly , the question of a parallel with Christ’s sacrifice and the rite of Holy Communion is raised.

Frazer’s intention is obvious-to smear Christianity as a man made myth by association with these primitive superstitions. Like most of the other smears and misrepresentations I have sought to address here, it’s easy to make but quite time consuming to refute. Most of Frazer’s argument consists of describing numerous pagan cults from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece etc to more recent savage practices found in Africa, Central America, Scandinavia and elsewhere. He invites the reader to assume that Christianity is simply one more of these corn god cults which as he puts it owed their similarity to the well meaning but misguided attempts by humans to try to make sense of the mysteries of the universe.

But however successful Frazer is as a chronicler of pagan religious beliefs and practices, when we get down to the specifics of Christianity, we find that his understanding varies from superficial to profoundly mistaken. For example, on page 361 of The Golden Bough under the title ‘Oriental religions in the West’ he brackets Jesus with Buddha and writes

‘...an instructive parallel might be drawn between the history of Christianity and the history of Buddhism. Both systems were in their origin essentially ethical reforms born of the generous ardour, the lofty aspirations, the tender compassion of their noble Founders , two of those beautiful spirits who appear at rare intervals on earth like beings come from a better world to support our weak and erring nature. Both preached moral virtue as the means of accomplishing what they regarded as the supreme object of life, the eternal salvation of the individual soul, though by a curious antithesis the one sought that salvation in a blissful eternity, the other in a final release from suffering, in annihilation.

But the austere ideas of sanctity which they inculcated were too deeply opposed not only to the frailties but to the natural instincts of humanity ever to be carried out in practice by more than a small number of disciples, who consistently renounced the ties of the family and the state in order to work out their own salvation in the still seclusion of the cloister………

…..p 362 ‘… For it should never be forgotten that by their glorification of poverty and celibacy both these religions struck straight at the root not merely of civil society but of human existence. The blow was parried by the wisdom or folly of the vast majority of mankind, who refused to purchase a chance of saving their souls with the certainty of extinguishing the species.’ (my bold-SH)

I am not misrepresenting or ‘quote mining’ here, these are Frazer’s words. He compared Jesus with Buddha, of course ignoring the unique evidence from prophecy that attaches to Jesus and to no other founder of a world religion. He represents Jesus as a preacher of ‘moral virtue’ while ignoring his claim to be the unique Son of God and the whole ‘Lamb of God’ strand of his mission, discussed elsewhere in these essays. He gives him equal status with Buddha who may have, like ConfuciusBaha’ullah and many another inspirational man, been a teacher of decent morals but was in no way a peer of Christ.

I don’t have time to discuss Buddha or Buddhism at length here, but I was quite into Zen in my late teens and know a little of it. Buddha was in no way or on any level the peer of Jesus of Nazareth. The idea that Jesus was essentially an ‘ethical reformer’ preaching ‘moral virtue’ is quite off the mark. He emphasised that he upheld the Law of Moses, he said he had come to fulfil it and ‘… to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Matthew ch 20 vss 17-28). This was not ‘ethical reform’ but the supernatural fulfilment of the Isaiah and other Messianic prophecies which I consider in a later chapter. And what’s this about ‘glorification of celibacy’? Sir James Frazer FRS has clearly read very widely about world paganism, but if he can assert that celibacy was a feature of the early church, or as he appears to state here a condition of salvation, I can only wonder if he has read the New Testament at all! We read specifically in the NT that church leaders should ordinarily be married and good fathers, see 1 Timothy chapter 3. I have written in another essay of the unbiblical nature of the Roman Catholic celibate priesthood.

Poverty is not a virtue in Old or New Testament religion either. Charity yes and avoidance of selfish ambition and the love of riches, but not poverty as a goal. I am against the unbiblical ‘prosperity gospel’ but recognise that there is a clear strand of Biblical teaching that promises modest wealth as a normal consequence of godly living including hard work. God may bless the humble poor and judge the undeserving rich, but poverty is nowhere seen as an aspirational state in Judaism or Christianity , even if it is in Buddhism. Frazer reveals in this passage that however much an expert he might be on his special subject of the pagan practices of primitive societies like the original Native Americans or the ancient cults of Balder, Osiris and Mithras, he doesn’t know quack about the basics of New Testament Christianity. I could (and have) said the same about some present day Fellows of the Royal Society!

Frazer certainly draws our attention to some significant and interesting facts that should be thought through rather than peremptorily dismissed or ignored, but the conclusions he invites his readers to draw are very much matters of interpretation. He seems to have bought into the secular humanist evolutionary view of religion as a sociological phenomenon. I will admit that some of his data about pre-Christian nature worship religions do support that view, but he does not appear to have properly considered the evidence about the unique features of the Judaeo-Christian tradition which I have discussed here. See the essays on prophecy, Israel and ‘sense and nonsense about evidence’.

C S Lewis was a serious student of global pagan myths, especially the Norse myths including that of Balder and the ‘Golden Bough’ which as Frazer tells us was mistletoe. He considered the same body of evidence, and certainly studied The Golden Bough as he wrote about it, but reached different conclusions. He asserted (not all Christians see it this way, some are offended by the suggestion) that the story of Jesus did in fact have emotionally satisfying and heroic qualities which overlap with some popular myths, but this could be explained by God sending pre-Christian cultures ‘good dreams’ which would prepare them for the true Gospel in due time. He further observed that the historical and other facts about Christianity set it on a completely different level from all the other stories which involved atoning sacrifice and a dying and resurrecting god. Where are the prior prophecies, prepared peoples and specific times and dates concerning any of those other tales? Can anyone give us the time and place of Adonis or Osiris’s birth, or the location where either was killed?

Frazer’s attempt to throw Christianity into the same bag as the dozens of pagan nature religions which can reasonably deserve the epithet ‘superstitious mumbo jumbo’ is superficially attractive, but fails. Christians assert that since God knew we would be subject to ‘the futile ways inherited from our fathers’ (1 Peter ch 1 vs 18) including all this ‘And man made god in his own image.’ stuff , He sealed the true religion with many evidences, including the unique and remarkable history of Israel, multiple fulfilled prophecies, the Law of Moses and the miraculous deeds and resurrection of Jesus. The evidence is there if we check it out. It appears that Sir James Frazer was selective in his appraisal of the evidence, he clearly got some very basic things about Christianity completely wrong as I show above in his own words.

Most likely like Charles Darwin (see later essays) he began with his conclusion and then selected and assembled the evidence accordingly.

At the very least, the honest sceptic considering Frazer’s assertions about Christianity being one among many made up story about dying and rising gods needs to ask how it became so enduring and successful. Where are the cults of Mithras, Balder, Osiris, Attis and Adonis today?

 

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…..or indeed the cult of Horus? It amazes me that people accept such trash unexamined, while spending much time and money on following football or TV series like Coronation Street, Strictly Come Dancing or Game of Thrones. This isn’t trivial. Speaking to honest skeptics may I remind folks that if Jesus was who He said He was then our eternal destiny depends on us following him. If we decide not to, we must safely refute His claims on better evidence than this cheap Jesus/Horus meme that flows from the work of a so called anthropologist who from actually reading what he wrote clearly hadn’t done his basic homework on the most important text his work dealt with.

 

 

Happy birthday Uncle Charlie

happy birthday Uncle Charlie

Visited the Museum of Natural History in Oxford yesterday, while in town for a 36 hour trip centred on the William Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean.

The Oxford MNH is very well worth a visit despite the predictable Darwin worship. I may post in more detail about that when I have time. I am sometimes criticised by evolutionists for arguing against the supposed evidences of evolution I was indoctrinated with at school for A level zoology in the 1970s, when there is supposed to be much more sophisticated evidence these days. So I have heard, but in fact the exhibition about evolution and Darwin in the Oxford MNH (being viewed by various school parties yesterday) is still very much centred on those supposed evidences, including the pitiful Peppered Moth story.

In a large display on the peppered moth, there was no mention of the now well known fraud by the original researcher Kettlewell during his fiddled experiments-which included glueing moths to tree trunks to be photographed, but ignoring in any event the fact (obvious to me as a 17 year old) that all we were seeing here was a cyclical shuffling in gene frequency with nothing new being created.

There was another display about pigeons, showing several different varieties. The fact that these are all still very much 100% pigeons and nothing else is ignored.

mothspigeons

You can shuffle pigeon genes for as long as you like, but they always remain pigeons. You can’t even breed them into a different kind of bird, its pigeons forever. The same is true for dogs, apples, carp and people. Darwin’s most fundamental error was to observe that trivial variations within a species existed and that some conditions favoured some previously existing forms (as with his classic grass square experiment, a very good bit of science as far as it went) and made the gigantic leap of faith to believing that all life forms were descended ‘by numerous, successive, gradual adaptations’ from a common ancestor which presumably assembled itself in ‘a warm little pond’ as he put it in a letter to Huxley.

He never had any repeatable observations to support the idea that one species could become another, even refused to define a species. His ‘theory’ was nothing but a great leap of imagination. But a godless origins story was what people like the anti-clerical T E Huxley WANTED to hear-as Dawkins wrote in ‘Blind Watchmaker’ ‘Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist’ . I submit that was and remains the primary reason for the widespread acceptance and protection of evolutionism from the normal process of criticism and falsification. The legend became the orthodox reality, which is even protected from criticism by law in our education system.

Darwin Day, 12th February, has not exactly taken off as a national celebration, at ;least not here in England 2015. But in the post-apocalyptic 2089 as imagined in my novel ‘Darwin’s Adders: A Chronicle of Pagan England 2089′ The Greatest Scientist Of All Time is honoured as a prophet and a god………

50 Shades of Grey, B & Q, Mary Whitehouse and a massive uncontrolled experiment

This morning we hear that hardware chain B&Q (where I frequently shop) is getting in extra stocks of ropes, chains and other stuff that can be used for bondage sex, in anticipation of the launch of the ’50 shades of Grey ‘ film this week. More worryingly, staff have been asked to read the book or see the film so they can help customers who are buying stuff to act out the bondage scenes in the film.

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I haven’t read ‘50 Shades of Grey’ and I never will. That immediately brings me to a snide letter I read in the Guardian some 30 years or so ago after the late Mary Whitehouse had attacked the stage play ‘The Romans in Britain’ as it had a scene of simulated male rape. The writer put it ‘I don’t know what Mary Whitehouse said about ‘The Romans in Britain’ without having seen it, but whatever it was, it was disgusting.‘ A clever comment but not one that bears much scrutiny, since there was never any doubt about the depiction of male rape on stage. What Mary Whitehouse was opining was that such things were unsuitable for public view. I don’t agree with her that this play should have been censored. This is not the place for a balanced appraisal of Mary Whitehouse’s work, but I will say that I admire her courage and commitment, if not always her judgment. Anyhow, I have picked enough up from the MSM and read a review of 50 Shades in ‘Christianity Today’ and feel that’s all I need to know. So do I have the right to say anything about the book, shortly to be released as a blockbuster film, and on Valentine’s Day?

I certainly don’t want it banned, since I want free speech for myself I must accept it for others. And I’m not going to add a ‘but…’ about free speech at this moment at this point. We Christians have put up with ‘Piss Christ’, ‘Last Temptation..’ Jerry Springer the Opera and all the rest. Jesus will defend His own honour at the appointed time. But I feel like making a few comments about the wisdom and indeed safety of saturating our society with pornography. How do we define the word? Are all depictions of nudity or sex in art or literature unacceptable? What about depictions of violence? Are there any potential harms from this kind of ‘art’, and if so what protection should be in place to minimise harm? We hear of a disturbing trend of sexual assaults on young girls by young boys who, it is argued, have been inappropriately sexualised by internet pornography.

I confess to having voluntarily viewed pornography. I am not going to say when I last viewed porn except that it was a number of years ago and that I am ashamed. I remember aged about 14 seeing some hard core Scandinavian porn a friend had smuggled back after a school orchestra trip,. He hid the magazines in his tuba. There was also a ‘novel’, under the imprint ‘Keyhole Classics’. I’m not going to describe it even in outline for the simple reason that I have memories of what I read and saw 45 years later and I would rather not have those memories, so I will not risk passing them on. And thereby hangs a tale.

As a teenager, I was exposed to filthy jokes, football chants and various other stuff which IS STILL IN MY BRAIN 45 YEARS LATER. If the stuff is still in my head and pops up into my consciousness unexpectedly, it must be part of the neural programming that makes up my personality and way of looking at the world. It must have to some extent shaped my view of women. You are what you eat-rubbish in rubbish out is true of computers, and if so, then my brain, and yours too Dear Reader, shares many aspects of a supercomputer. If we are not influenced by stuff we read, see and hear, then why is there a multi billion pound advertising industry?

I read something by Hans Eysenck, inventor of the IQ test-clever guy and not known for being a Christian  fundamentalist wacko like me. He looked at the effect of pornography and concluded, as far as his researches went, that most people who imbibe pornography are not measurably changed by it, but a few are. Eysenck, as I recall, saw peoples’ behaviour on a bell curve, with most people somewhere in the middle and some at each extreme. If exposure to pornography tilts men’s attitude and behaviour towards women a few degrees to the left, then a few people at one extreme end of the curve may be tilted over into wanting to act out sexual assault. Of course, this won’t be the case for most.

No kid needs to smuggle hard core porn home from Sweden in a tuba-porn beyond the wildest dreams of a horny 1970s teenager is available on Smartphones. I used to listen to Radio Caroline under my bed sheets at night-9 year olds can now watch explicit hard core sex. This has never happened before. What will be the effect? We don’t know, so its a massive uncontrolled experiment.

I may add a few more reflections on porn later, getting ready to go out now, but feel that the question should be asked ‘How do we know that the widespread availability of explicit sexual material is not harmful? How would we test the hypothesis that it will inculcate harmful attitudes and behaviours? What if there are harmful effects on the development of particularly young men that will not become apparent for decades?

How can we test the effects on society of normalising and ubiquitising pornography, including bondage and S&M? Or is it OK to run a mass uncontrolled experiment, as long as some people are satisfying their urges and others are making money? We certainly can’t do a randomised prospective controlled double-blind trial, it would take 30years or more and it would sadly be impossible to find a control group that never used porn. If researchers would find such a group, they would be so unrepresentative of the general population as to nullify them as a control. But if it does turn out in 20 years or so that open access to hard core porn from a young age turns out a high proportion of men who are not satisfied with the ordinary conventional love of one woman, and that this has a catastrophic effect on families and therefore society, it will be too late.

An Atheist on the Alpha Course-part 1

An atheist on the Alpha course

This post is rather long at nearly 3,000 words, but it was a very intense evening touching on a lot of important issues, so I have written quite a lot. I haven’t exhausted my notes and could have written more. You have no obligation to read any of it!

On Wednesday 29th January 2015 I attended a meeting of the Winchester Skeptics Society held at The Discovery Centre, Winchester. It was my first main meeting of the society, although I had been to a coffee and chat after another meeting.

The following is part 1 of a write up and criticism of the meeting. This is the write up, I will write and post a separate essay criticising it later once this has been on my blog for a week or so to give the speaker a chance to respond. I aim to be as accurate as I can be in setting down an account of what was said from the notes I made on the night. Where I have put the speaker’s words in parentheses, I am quoting verbatim or near-verbatim. I have not covered everything that was said but tried to make a fair summary.

First I should say that I am an Evangelical Christian who has not been on an Alpha course but has heard a lot about the course and know many people, including my wife Julia, who have. I was a member of a charismatic style of church for some years that employed the alpha course, but I never felt the need or inclination to go on it. My feelings about Alpha before the meeting were generally positive, but I have no brief or interest in defending the course.  I hope that I went with an open mind, while being fully aware of all of our tendencies to bring various items of baggage and mind set assumptions with us wherever we go, and in fact to deceive ourselves about how objective we really are.

As the proverb goes,

‘There’s nowt so queer as folk, except thee and me. And I’m not so sure about thee.’

or in modern parlance

‘I have a completely open mind and follow the facts and evidence wherever they lead, you are somewhat subjective, he is a deluded fundamentalist  beyond the reach of reasoned argument.’

The speaker was Simon Clare from Brighton, an ‘agnostic atheist’ as he described himself.  He went on the Alpha course out of curiosity and (as it slipped out later) to see if he could convert any Christians to atheism. He began the evening by asking if there were any Alpha course organisers present (there weren’t) as he liked them to be there in order to vouch for the accuracy of what he said. ‘I only want to share the truth with you’. There were about 100 people there by my rough estimation, there is a photo on Simon’s blog (I’m in it, on the far right, head down and scribbling notes).

I will say this in Simon Clare’s favour: he said that he had gone on the Alpha course as a convinced atheist and, if I understood him rightly, with somewhat stereotyped views of ‘people of faith’, whom he also took to have stereotyped views of atheists. Actually meeting and conversing with them, he came to realise that his assumptions about why people come to and persist in faith were too simplistic and that there were as many reasons for people being Christians as there were people, or words to that effect. I thought this was wise, thoughtful and helpful of him, and it made me reflect that I probably tend to oversimplify atheists in my arguments. Perhaps its is understandable that one’s response may be crude or uncharitable when an internet atheist is calling you an ignorant brainwashed moron who has a fetish about a magic man in the sky and believes in bronze age fairy tales because you are too stupid to understand science and can’t deal with the reality of extinction at death etc. But I hope in future to live up to the high standards of respect for one’s opponents as set out my Mr Clare, even if I can’t entirely forswear sarcasm.

The history of the course was discussed. As is well known, it began at Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, initially in 1977 as a ‘refresher for established Christians’ but became more of an outreach tool. The course was transformed and revitalised under the control of Nicky Gumbel a trained barrister and Anglican minister. It has since gone global and mainstream, moving from being something on the fringes to being ‘central to the C of E’s method of spreading the word.‘ It has spread from its Anglican origins to most churches, and has had something like 15 to 20 million attendees in 160 countries, being very big in China and India (which held 20,000 courses in 2010, up from 20 in 2007), and also many UK prisons. Simon Clare lamented that prisoners were unlikely to be offered a ‘humanist’ course.

The course is somewhat respectable: Prime Minister David Cameron has mentioned the Alpha course in prisons in his Easter address, and  Nicky Gumbel is a friend of Archbishop Justin Welby, who was at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB). The two of them have been to see the Pope and the Roman catholic church has adapted a version of Alpha which finds a place for Mary the mother of Jesus.

75% of Alpha attendees are aged 18-35 and although in Britain Alpha is largely attended by established Christians, whether committed or on the fringes, in some parts of the world (I think he said New England) a third of new conversions to Christian faith were via the course. So, Alpha is big, established and still growing. Mr Clare told the audience that ‘It might surprise you that it is so big given some of the content.’

Mr Clare said that he ‘Went on an Alpha course to see if my atheism, which was pretty fundamental, could resist the best that he church could throw at me.‘ He told us that ‘Richard Dawkins is my hero’ and he had got the polemicist to sign his Alpha ticket, which he showed us a photo of.

Simon attended an Alpha course at St Peter’s, a church in Brighton which had apparently faced closure but had been rescued by a ‘church plant’ of enthusiastic Christians, as I recall with some assistance from HTB. He said ‘HTB is a rich church, they seem to grow vicars in test tubes.’ St Peters was now ‘packed out with young Christians multiple times on Sundays.’ He mentioned that it was a very active church which offered a soup kitchen, marriage and addiction support groups and a food bank. lots of things to do, lots of ways for people to get drawn in and involved. He admired this social aspect of church and lamented the failure of humanists, so far, to rival it, for example with the Sunday Assembly in Brighton which he had been involved in but left, for reasons he discusses on his blog.

He said that he liked the format and felt that humanists could learn from it. Attendees were met and greeted by 3 people and put in groups of about 10. He described the people as ‘lovely’ and mentioned that the course was free (apart from residential weekends which cost something, although bursaries were available for those who really couldn’t afford it)-you could contribute a few pounds for food if you wanted to.

He mentioned the singing of hymns-it was at this point that he realised that almost everyone on the course was an established Christian/regular churchgoer or at least cultural Christian. He didn’t think much of the hymns, describing some as having ‘…ear worm choruses and words even Christians should be offended by.’  

Everyone gets a hand book, and in every group of 10, 3 are ‘staff’ i.e. church regulars and/or members of the Alpha team.

After the hymns, there was a talk/sermon which was [primarily about Jesus. He described the primary message as being along the lines of ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, but sin gets in the way, so God sent Jesus to die on the cross for your sins. All you have to do to appropriate all the goodness that God intends for you is to accept that Jesus died on the cross for your sins.‘ (my paraphrase/summary). He said that he heard the message being put that God had done this for us because ‘we deserve it’. (*)  He described the content of the talks getting ‘stranger and stranger’ as the course progressed.

He found the format overall very good, with much in it that atheists/secularists/humanists could emulate, although obviously with very different content. His favourite bits were the discussions ‘I loved them’ he said. ‘This was something Alpha does really, really well…three quarters of an hour to have quality conversations about the big subjects.‘ He found it stimulating to talk with people who have different views, and then perhaps go down the pub afterwards for a continuation. On Simon’s own blog he says to visitors ‘Bored with outrage. If you listen, I’ll listen’ which sounds pretty good.

After 10 weeks course attendees had to decide whether to carry on, i.e. become regular attenders at the church, or stop coming- in which case they would lose the group of friends they had become engaged with over the last 10 weeks or so. It was at this point that Mr Clare seemed to begin developing the main payload of his presentation, that Alpha rather than being an honest way of unpacking and explaining the historical and eternal verities of the Christian faith was primarily about using psychology and reprehensible mind tricks to get people hooked. This would become the principal theme of his presentation, and I note that it forms a big part of his blog too.

The first 3 week’s themes were Jesus, God and The Holy Spirit (whom Clare referred to as ‘it’ throughout). He described the sessions on The Holy Spirit as ‘where it starts getting really weird.‘  He spoke about stories of dreams, ‘words of knowledge’, claimed supernatural healings and ‘tricks that stage psychics use.‘ He said this was the first thing that really upset him, comparing the way that supposed/reported/pretended supernatural happenings were encouraged and talked about was in the same league as ‘People like Derren Brown and people worse than Derren Brown’ employed to work gullible audiences.

He said ‘They talk about good humanist things (his phrase-SH) that Jesus said, then try to trick you with cultist tricks like miraculously unblocked tear ducts.’ He compared this sort of thing to spiritualist séances and stage illusionist trickery.

Discussing the session which asked the question ‘Who is Jesus?’, Mr Clare said ‘Jesus is real’. The Alpha course discussed that the earliest known New Testament documents went back to well within 100 years of the death of Jesus, whereas documents such as Julius Caesar’s history of the Gallic wars were far fewer in number and were dated at more like 600 years after Caesar’s life. Reputable historians were quite happy to cite this work as historically authoritative, even if probably somewhat biased, so why not the NT? He seemed amused by the claim that the existence of large numbers of New Testaments from early on was significant and managed to get some people in the audience to laugh at this alleged non sequitur.

The question was raised by the Alpha presenter as to ‘how we could have faith’. To illustrate this, a 2 minute animated cartoon was shown about the tightrope performer Blondin, who walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope, performing various feats like cooking and eating an omelette half way across. After taking a sack of potatoes in a wheelbarrow across the rope before a huge audience, Blondin asked a dignitary and then the crowd if they believed that he could take a person across the Falls in a wheelbarrow. They agreed that he could. He then asked for a volunteer. Nobody would dare try it, until a little old lady came forward. Blondin took her across safety. She was his mother, the cartoon told us,  and she had faith in him because she knew him.

After letting this sink in, Mr Clare dropped his bombshell. Not only had Blondin never taken any person across the Falls, but his mother had been dead for some years at the time in question.  He concluded that not only was Alpha using an falsehood (whether deliberately or though ignorance) but also a rotten analogy since Blondin had demonstrated that he could perform astonishing feats of balance, which was not comparable with faith in God, ‘..that thing that may or may not exist.‘  as Clare put it.

This story from the Alpha course certainly underlined Simon Clare’s claim that Alpha ‘is often criticised by Christians for having very unsophisticated theology.’ He left it a little unclear whether, the historical inaccuracy having been pointed out, the cartoon was still being widely used.

Taking a punctuation stop at this point, Mr Clare repeated his heartfelt desire that ‘..there was something like the Alpha course without God for humanists’ (**)

Returning to the subject of The Holy Spirit, our speaker again derided the methods used on the course which he caricaturised as saying ‘The reason we know this (i.e. the Christian faith-SH) is true is that we can conjure God into the room now, like cultists.’ he went on, in his own voice to say ‘..when we analyse the universe, it is wonderful and magical…we don’t need these cheap party tricks.’

He discussed ‘words of knowledge’ which he described as being the same sort of crowd-working emotional/psychological trickery that a psychic would use. The Alpha leader would claim something like ‘When you are talking to God and praying, sometimes a word of knowledge will come to you’ and gave the example of someone claiming that they had ‘received a word of knowledge’ that someone in the audience had foot trouble, or money trouble. He described this as ‘complete nonsense’ and said that the words of Jesus were wonderful enough to stand on their own and ‘don’t need this embellishment’ and that by trying to use emotion (pretended or imagined supernatural communications and healings) the church was ‘shooting itself in the foot.’

I was saddened at this since I have been in church settings where I saw this sort of emotional manipulation in use. No use denying it happens at times and places, there are appalling examples on YouTube, Google for example Todd Bentley. I will discuss what the New Testament says about this sort of thing, and how representative this is of mainstream Christianity-or even the Alpha course- in part 2 of my reflections on this evening.

It felt uncomfortable to hear the church’s, or some sections of the Church’s, dirty laundry being aired in public here. But one must give Simon Clare his due-he may have been being selective and, like a prosecuting lawyer, making the accused sound as bad as possible while playing down any good aspects, but even if this was a biased presentation he clearly wasn’t making any of this up. The only remedy to alleged misrepresentation is to hear both sides of the case.

He described a meeting at which Nicky Gumbel used emotion and music to get people ‘singing in tongues’. He showed us a passage in the course leaders’ manual which offered the phrase ‘Only last week in this place, someone was praying for someone else in tongues and it turned out to be Arabic!’. Beside this in the margin was the advice to the presenter ‘Use this example or substitute one of your own.’ Mr Clare rightly pointed out that, regardless of whether the claim about Arabic tongues had ever been true or not, it would clearly be unacceptable for someone to use this example if they did not know it was true. It is impossible to disagree with him on this point.

In response to the final audience question Mr Clare became somewhat animated as he mentioned that people on the Alpha course seemed to believe in an actual supernatural malignant intelligence, i.e. the Devil or Satan. This belief upset him very much. But earlier he had been telling us what a jolly good fellow the historical Jesus was, the same Jesus who was so often on about that very same Satan, calling him ‘…the father of lies.’ amongst other things. I imagine Mr Clare has seen the film ‘The Usual Suspects’ in which Kevin Spacey’s character ‘Verbal’ Kint says ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was getting people to believe he didn’t exist.’ I’ll finish for now at that point.

Anyway, there’s my imperfect and incomplete write up of ‘An Atheist on the Alpha Course’. I appreciated the evening if I can’t say I enjoyed it, and I applaud Simon Clare’s stated aims of telling the truth, asking and trying to answer difficult questions, listening and reasoning respectfully with people of diametrically opposite beliefs. I aspire to all those aims, even if, weak as I am, I do not always succeed. I am rather busy at present but will try to write and post part 2 of this review in 2 weeks or so, in which I will discuss what I see as Mr Clare’s errors and omissions.

(*) I will address this profound theological misunderstanding/error in the second part of this discussion. I am quite clear that Simon Clare used the term ‘deserve’, whether he was reporting this accurately or he misremembered, it is not what the Bible teaches. Biblical Christian theology is absolutely clear that we do NOT deserve the love of God, see for example Romans 6:23 ‘For the wages (i.e. just deserts) of sin is death, but the free gift of God is everlasting life in Christ Jesus.’ The point was made by both him and questioners from the floor that many Christians felt that Alpha propounded a shallow and/or erroneous version of Christian theology-more about that later.

(**) I was tempted to call out ‘There already is training in secular humanism-its called the Establishment, including the government, mainstream media, secular education and the BBC!’.

 

American Sniper film review

I went to see this film mainly because of the bad reviews from leftists. When I read about this film I remembered director Clint Eastwood’s angry ‘no-one messes with my country’ comments about ‘this day will live in infamy…’on the patriotic US TV programme that was put on shortly after the Muslim attacks on civilisation commonly known as ‘9/11′. I haven’t watched Michael Moore’s review apparently comparing the US sniper with Hitler’s, only heard reports of it, but I did read the Guardian’s write up and it was exactly as expected. I won’t bother recycling it here, if you are familiar with The Guardian’s usual anti-American line you could probably write it yourself.

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I was expecting the film to be something of a cross between ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘High Noon’ with a dash of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and good deal of Rambo style (subtly underplayed with some self doubt of course) Vietnam era ‘Get some, M…..F…..!’ thrown in as bad guys are blown away by the dozen with many an exploding tomato sauce exit wound. I wasn’t disappointed on that score. For the record, I think ‘The Hurt Locker’ depicted the horrors faced by both US soldier and Iraqi civilian far more effectively with a lower body and explosion count.

Caution plot spoilers.

Clint Eastwood sets out his stall  early on. Our hero as a child sees his small brother being savagely beaten in the playground by a much bigger boy, cheered on by non-intervening onlookers. The brave brother piles in and savagely beats the boy who was savagely beating his brother. Later at table, an aggressive father, threatening with a belt and bad language, explains that ‘There are three kinds of people in the world. Sheep, who get eaten, wolves who eat them, and sheepdogs who protect.’ (*) He then asks if the bigger boy (Chris) ‘ended it’. He replies on the affirmative. Father sternly approves, saying ‘then you know what you are ”( a sheepdog).” On refection later I recalled  a similar, albeit grossly obscene, film speech about 3 kinds of people (dicks, pussies and assholes) in  the puppet spoof film ‘Team America: World Police.‘ I have no idea whether or not Eastwood saw the latter film, the cynic will see many similarities between the spoof which mocks America’s supposed role as global sheriff and his Chris Kyle biopic, which seems to celebrate it.

Later the adult Chris is disturbed by TV reports of attacks on overseas US embassies and finally by ‘9/11′ after which he signs up immediately to protect his country from the bad guys. Tough boot camp, great loyalty, brave soldiering, ‘love my God, Country and Family SIR…’

That’s about it bar the shooting. Of which there is a lot.

In the last scene, we see the man playfully pointing a revolver at his wife and demanding she take down her drawers for some hasty sex (all in jest of course, which is fine in a country with some 30,000 firearms deaths a year, many domestic), He then goes off to the shooting range, where we are told (not shown) that he was ‘killed by a veteran he was trying to help’. We see a huge funeral cortege with much flying of the flag. And perhaps for Clint Eastwood that final line sums up the whole tragedy of America in Iraq ‘We were only trying to help. it was SOOOO ungrateful of you to kill our occupying soldiers!!!’

Was the film a Clint Eastwood all American propaganda vehicle? Yes

Does it justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Pretty much.

Does it dehumanise Arabs? Not all of them. Some (not all) of the regular street Arabs are seen as victims-of Al Qaeda, not of the Americans who are the good guys, but the Al Qaeda and other insurgents are frequently referred to as ‘savages’ with many bloody illustrations including a chained and dismembered corpse hanging in a torture chamber full of body parts and a child being murdered with a drill in front of his family. Eastwood’s message is that these people are BAD and they DESERVE to die. Sort of side-steps the issue of how things might have been if the US and UK led invasion hadn’t destabilised Iraq and the whole Middle East. An Iraqi I know says ‘Under Saddam it wasn’t democracy but we had water, electricity and education and if you kept your mouth shut about politics you could walk down the street without being killed.’

The issue that the wily Saudi Osama bin Laden had a deliberate long term plan to provoke America into actions that his people could use to provoke unending global jihad and that Bush and Blair walked right into it is not addressed.

On reflection, much as I detest the anti-American and anti-Western views of the left, I have always sided with them about the wicked and stupid nature of the 2003 Iraq invasion. Saddam Hussein was a very wicked man but it seems doubtful if anyone gentler could have kept the lid on the ethnic and religious hatreds and sheer criminality that exploded in Iraq after the Allied forces stood down the police and army. There seems no doubt that the Islamic State murder organisation is the child of that invasion and is a far bigger threat to the west than Saddam Hussein ever was. Middle East Christians (not that they are the only victims) are immeasurably worse off than they would be if Saddam and Gaddafi were still in power.

Yes soldiers are brave and we prefer ours to theirs,  but a bad call is still a bad call. The sniper on several occasions had a difficult decision to make about whether to take a shot. He was told ‘Its your call’ and on one occasion was told that he would go to prison if he got it wrong. It is regrettable that no such sanction has been applied to George Bush and Anthony Blair, whose monumentally wrong call against good advice went so disastrously wrong. We still await the Chilcot report into the start of the 2003 Iraq war although the last testimony was given in 2011.

3 stars out of 5.

(*) I quote from memory, may be inexact but that was the gist of it.

An atheist at the Alpha course

Last week I attended my first meeting of the Winchester Skeptics Society at the Discovery Centre. The speaker, Simon Clare from Brighton, was talking about the Alpha course. He posted this picture on Twitter and you can see me ‘furiously taking notes’  as a friend observed, circled near the right of the image.

winchester skeptics edit

I am writing up the meeting and my thoughts on it, its taking a while-2,600 words written so far and well short of finishing my notes. So much else to do…aged relatives to visit, younger daughter to see off on plane to work placement in Vietnam, my skin cancer diagnostics course to finalise…when DO I get time to blog? Oh yes, instead of watching TV or playing your guitar and after you should have gone to bed….anyway

Summary: Simon Clare is a committed atheist who wishes to be known as an objective, rational, humanist, skeptical truth seeker. He went on an Alpha course and now tours the country and blogs about how the people who run this course use lies and emotional mind control techniques to con people and draw them in. There is a good deal of truth in some of what he says. (*)

I will publish my write up of the meeting and my comments as 2 separate posts here shortly.

(*) ‘The enemy made his lie stronger my mixing a good deal of truth with it.‘ C S Lewis ‘The Last Battle.’

Response to Stephen Fry recycling of Epicurus’ conundrum

Stephen ‘I’m so clever, and famous too!’ Fry has been recycling atheist cliches again. Reminds me of Richard Dawkins as caricaturised (but not very much) in Private Eye.

‘God! What a bastard! and he doesn’t even EXIST!!!!’

The slogans pumped out by the two of them, like those of Christopher Hitchens, are good examples of the saying ‘It is a hard thing to correct a simple lie with a complex truth’. But someone has to try.

The following essay is lifted verbatim from my www.questiondarwin.com site where it can be found under the ‘Christian apologetics and counterblasts’ menu. It was first published in my Kindle book ‘Three Men in a Hut and Other Essays.’

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WHY WON’T GOD STOP PAIN AND SUFFERING?

Pain and Suffering

The existence of suffering is often cited as a principal objection to the existence of a good and powerful deity. A commonly used argument runs something like this. As it is attributed to the Roman atheist philosopher Epicurus, let’s call it Epicurus’ conundrum, although teaser might be a better term.

‘Suffering exists: if God were all powerful, and good, he would stop it. If he wants to stop it but cannot, then he is not all powerful. If he could stop it but does not, then he is not good. Therefore the existence of pain and suffering proves that God, if any, is either not good or not omnipotent.’

Epicurus took a dim view of any kind of suffering or disappointment: his philosophy was all about immediate self gratification. Not so different to ours today? 

The celebrated poet and Latin scholar A E Housman, also an atheist, wrote several poems which were clearly influenced by Epicurus’ philosophy towards the God in whom he chose not to believe. In several of them he recommends suicide as a cure for unhappiness and failure, being convinced there is no afterlife. (1)

For example,

 

 Shot? So quick, so clean and ending?

That was right, boy, that was brave!

Yours was not a fault for mending,

‘Twas best to take it to the grave.

If atheism/materialism is true as Housman believed, the logic of this is inescapable. If the machine is malfunctioning and can’t be economically fixed, switch it off. It’s not as if you had a soul or were answerable to your Maker. If it is true, as asserted by the stand up comic who is leading a ‘Sunday Assembly’ pseudochurch for people who believe there is no God says, that ‘we come from nothing and are going to nothing’ then suicide is logical. In fact, the extinction of the human race would be the perfect way to ‘stop the suffering’ permanently!

Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in the mental pain caused by the discovery that his uncle murdered his father before marrying his mother, contemplated suicide as a possible way to end his mental pain, but reasons that this may bring him into God’s wrath, saying

‘Hath not the Almighty fixed His canon against self slaughter?’

 and

‘Conscience makes cowards of us all.’

 

Another of Housman’s poems addresses Jesus, saying if he is just dead, then sleep tight, knowing nothing of his mission’s failure (as Housman saw it), but if he is indeed risen and ascended, then come down from heaven and save us! Like Epicurus, Housman was trying to box God into a corner and tell him how he must behave, ignoring the salvation he has actually provided for us and demanding salvation on some other basis more agreeable to his way of thinking, something perhaps without the offensive, humbling message of the cross of Christ. A bit like an appendicitis sufferer demanding a medicine, perhaps homeopathy, instead of the operation they are being offered.

It doesn’t work like that. It’s like saying let’s abolish poverty by giving everyone a million pounds. This sounds great, to a 7 year old, until you stop and think though the practicalities of what it would mean.

I will attempt to briefly expose the logical flaws in this apparently successful argument. Because of the ever present risk of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, before I go any further I must say that having endured a certain amount of it, physical and mental, and witnessed much more, I totally hate suffering (my own and other people’s), and have worked all my adult life as a medical doctor trying to prevent and relieve it. Also, I have not neglected my Christian duty of charity towards the helpless poor as I can readily prove from my bank statements over the last 30 years. I hesitate to say that last bit in view of Jesus’ words against us protesting our own righteousness to impress men, but this is a bare knuckle fight and I am trying to anticipate the misrepresentation and quote mining of counter attacks.

There is a story about a man who says that he wanted to ask God why He didn’t do more to relieve suffering in the world, but was afraid that God would respond by asking him the same question.

If it feels good, do it

Epicurus gave his name to the term ‘Epicurean’, or ‘Epicure’ which means someone who lives for pleasure. He believed that beings were made up of atoms which combined randomly to create all things for no reason (strikingly similar to the beliefs of today’s atheists) and that our consciousness ends at death, therefore we ought to have no fear of future judgment (ditto). He lived for pleasure, so clearly didn’t want there to be a God whose just commands might limit his pleasure seeking behaviour and would bring him into judgment. In my opinion, many people tend to reject God not so much because of the evidence, but because of their feelings and desires. Treasuring above all their claimed right to autonomy, they decide there ought not to be a God (unless it is a god they have invented for ther own purposes-i.e. an idol)  and then as they feel the need invent or borrow arguments against God,  in order to justify the stance they have already taken. They aren’t seeking truth, their primary goal is the gratification of their desires and avoidance of pain. Do look up Epicurus on Wikipedia. (2) There really is nothing new under the sun as it says in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes. Anyway, back to his conundrum.

What assumptions did Epicurus bring to his conundrum?

Always look for the unstated axiomatic assumptions behind any argument. There are a few assumptions that are not spelled out but on which the validity of Epicurus’ argument depend. The first is that suffering is only ever a bad thing. The question of deserved or self inflicted suffering as a result of our choices is ignored. He also assumes that a theoretical all powerful deity could by the mere exercise of power end our pain and suffering without, as an inevitable side effect, doing other things which would be worse for us that the pain and suffering. This last question is vital even if the contentious questions of deserved or redemptive suffering are rejected-what level of collateral damage would be acceptable if only God ‘ended the suffering’? Think about lobotomy, or indeed euthanasia.

As I have written elsewhere on this site, there are some things that even God cannot do because they are inherently contradictory and therefore cannot exist, even in theory.  As the proverb goes, you cannot have your cake and eat it. Once you have eaten it, it’s gone. You cannot have choices or actions without consequences.

None of this nuanced reality and striving for realistic answers to difficult questions is of any comfort to a woman lying awake with severe toothache or standing by her child’s grave, but if we are interested in striving to find the truth rather than finding immediate comfort we have to look beyond our immediate feelings. As a latter day philosopher-poet John Lennon wrote,‘Imagine all the people, living for today’. I’d rather not, thanks. That’s the philosophy of life that got us into this debt crisis and much else we could have avoided if we’d thought about tomorrow and the day after rather than just lived for today. You cannot build a good life, family, career, business or society by ‘living for today’.

Anyhow, can suffering have a purpose? Yes it can.

I remember a teenage girl with a fever and bellyache. She was not enjoying the bellyache at all. I was a medical student at the time when she was admitted to hospital. The more junior of the surgical team to which I was attached believed she had appendicitis and wanted to operate immediately, but the senior doctor thought it was due to a virus. There is a feverish viral illness called mesenteric adenitis in which the lymph glands in the abdomen are inflamed. It causes fever, nausea and bellyache and is notorious for mimicking acute appendicitis. I remember occasions when, suspecting appendicitis, we opened the abdomen to find a clean appendix and glands. It happens, just like when we cut out a suspicious mole and tests show it isn’t cancer. This is what you call a ‘false positive’, part of the normal operation of the inevitably uncertain diagnostic process. A proportion of false positives are acceptable, false negatives can kill.

We didn’t have ultrasound for acute abdominal pain back then, diagnosis was a matter of clinical judgment. Surgery was delayed in favour of 24 hours observation. I remember the frustration of the junior doctor as he said to me, out of his senior’s hearing ‘We should be operating on her tonight!’

He was right; it was a false negative. The matter was worse than supposed. When her belly was eventually cut open a day later, thick yellow pus poured out. Her gangrenous appendix had burst causing peritonitis. Another day’s delay and she would certainly have died, as it is I fear she will have had later problems with fertility due to tubal blockage and adhesions. Doctors don’t always get it right.

That case taught me to fear mistakes. A better man then I (there are millions of them) once wrote, ‘The true surgeon is never fearless-he fears for his shortcomings, his own mistakes, above all he fears for his patient. But he never fears for himself or his professional reputation. His fear makes him a better man.’

 

Is all pain in this life bad?

The point of the medical analogy is twofold. Firstly, pain tells us when something is wrong. If you have a gangrenous inflamed appendix, it will burst and probably kill you. If it causes severe pain and sends you to the GP, who sends you to the surgeon, and he makes the right diagnosis and treats you correctly and in time, you are very likely to be saved. Without pain, you do not perceive the danger. Pancreatic cancer is a merciless killer-Patrick Swayze and Steve Jobs are two of it’s better know recent victims. While revising this I received the sad news that a local folk singer I used to know (Martin Lee) had just died of pancreatic cancer, he was only about my age. I hate it. Pancreatic cancer grows painlessly deep inside the abdomen, usually only declaring itself when jaundice appears after it has strangled the bile duct, by which time cure is usually impossible. 95% of victims are dead within a year of diagnosis. If it hurt, it would be more curable.

Secondly, necessary treatment for dangerous conditions, like appendicitis, can be painful. Consider what a surgeon says to a patient when he proposes an operation.

‘My colleague the anaesthetist will give you an injection to render you unconscious, and another to paralyse your breathing. Then, while you are completely helpless, we will cut you open with a sharp knife and do things inside you. It will hurt and you will be scarred for life. And there’s no time to think about it, you are dangerously ill: we must act tonight.’

Doesn’t sound very promising, but I have seen abdominal surgery save many lives. Both my parents’ lives have been saved by emergency abdominal surgery.

Pain tells us something is wrong that needs fixing

So, pain can warn us of terrible danger, causing us to take action and recieve salvation. Pain can also be a necessary part of the cure. I realise that this does not entirely remove Epicurus’ objections, but given the world we live in it does balance his simplistic saying with some nuanced reality. Given the realities, removing pain without dealing with its underlying causes is not doing anyone a favour.

What about pain that is caused by our own actions?  I manage a 5 acre fruit orchard and use very sharp instruments to prune the trees, and have suffered physical pain and scars as a result of cutting myself. I can show you the scars! I have also suffered mental pain and remorse, sometimes to the point of severe and prolonged anguish, as a result of foolish, impulsive and selfish decisions I made which hurt other people. And yes there was also the hurt those others experienced which I was unable to recall. We hurt ourselves and each other by our free actions and choices. The painful memories of bad things I have done act as a deterrent against repeating them. One definition of a psychopath is someone who is insensitive to the pain of others despite experience. Such people are very dangerous, especially when they are physically attractive and gifted speakers. I would rather suffer the mental pain of shame and humiliation after making a bad mistake that hurts other people than be indifferent. It would be better if I avoided the mistake in the first place, but it would be terrible if  having done the harm I felt no remorse. Pain of that kind can have a deterrent effect and improve our behaviour. And others can learn from our example.

Pain, given how the world is, can be good for us. The question ‘Couldn’t God have made the world differently, without the need for pain?’ arises. In fact, the book of Genesis tells us that the world God ORIGINALLY made was ‘very good’ until Adam ruined it by a culpable act of disobedience. That could have perhaps been avoided if God had made Adam and Eve without free will, but then they would not have been human. I’ll return to this strand of the discussion later, but readers might want to ask themselves if the loss of free will and individual personhood would be a price they would pay for ‘no pain’. Could a humanoid without free will, their every thought, desire, instinct and actions controlled by Another, even experience what we would recognise as consciousness? Would such a robotic life be worth living?

Pain is often self inflicted as a result of culpably bad choices

There is a marvellous passage, funny as well as sad, in the book of Proverbs describing the self inflicted sufferings of the drunkard. (3) Another passage describes the lamentations and horrible death by syphilis (4) of a young man who practiced fornication with prostitutes. A lot of our pain is stuff we asked for. I remember a patient once who came to see me because he was suffering from anxiety. He had ordered goods on credit from a mail order catalogue, sold them, spent the money on prostitutes (I’m not making this up) and was now experiencing agitation as the purveyors of the goods wanted paying. And he wanted me, as his doctor, to sort things out for him with pills and a sick note.

A huge amount of the suffering we experience, as individals ad societies, is due to our own chosen actions. Living obedient to the teachings of the Bible can protect us from many pains and distresses. This theme is explored in the book ‘None of These Diseases’ by S I McMillen, (5) which in various editions has been in print for almost half a century. The book examines the many physical, social and mental health benefits of a godly lifestyle, with plenty of published evidence. Sexually transmitted infections (including HIV/AIDS) are only the most obvious example of suffering we could have avoided by following God’s instructions.

Incidentally, when the atheist philosopher Richard Dawkins was presented with the results of research findings showing evidence that practicing religious people lived longer, enjoyed better health and had more grandchildren, he is said to have replied ‘That sure as hell doesn’t mean it’s true!’ I pray that hell will not be sure for Professor Dawkins, but as a deterministic Darwinian materialist, it is inconsistent of him to dismiss evidence for something, a ‘meme’ perhaps, that has demonstrable survival benefit. Isn’t that what evolution is supposedly about, selecting for advantageous traits on the basis of differential survival?

I am aware that the above considerations only reduce but do not eliminate the problem of pain. I’m not saying it can be entirely eliminated, just that it’s nowhere near as simple as Epicurus implied and certainly no killer knockdown punch against belief in a good, powerful Deity. But let’s go a little further and think about how God might eliminate some of the suffering.

There is a saying that ‘He who would do good to his fellow man must do it in minute particulars’, i.e. you can’t help ‘Mankind’ in general, but you may be able to help some actual men and women. This is the difference between an atheist like Karl Marx and a Christian like Dr Barnardo. Both men had a vision and wanted to change the world. One hurled gigantic curses against ‘Capitalism’ and called on others to rise up and ‘smash the system’, while the other built a home for disadvantaged and abandoned children in Barkingside, where as it happens I grew up. So lets do a case study ‘in minute particulars’ of pain that could be avoided.

Pain caused to others by our  selfishness

Let us weigh Epicurus’ conundrum against a specific case: the sufferings caused by heroin addiction. If you haven’t seen the film ‘Trainspotting’ I suggest you do despite the violence and bad language. It considers heroin addiction and the accompanying lifestyles, depicting the death of a baby by neglect (parents too stoned to notice) the descent of an athlete into a sordid lonely death through AIDS, theft, faecal incontinence, prison, terrifying hallucinations during withdrawal and the utter self centeredness and loss of dignity of the heroin user.

As the Ewan McGregor character tells us in voice over at the film’s opening, the heroin addict chooses a path which will they hope will lead to pleasure. I believe this to be a more realistic view of addiction than the politically correct ‘victimhood’ model, although we are all individuals and it’s hard to prove one way or another. Nevertheless, I don’t see how we can deny that the addict makes a choice, at least at the start. My father told me a proverb once, said to be Chinese, which read

‘First, the man drinks the wine

Then the wine drinks the wine

Then, the wine drinks the man.’

Soon, the addiction prevents him from working, so he begs and borrows. His loved ones suffer mental anguish as they watch his downward path. They try to help him, he steals from them. They bail him out of prison and get him into detox, he absconds and perhaps sells himself as a prostitute to get more drugs (see for example ‘The Basketball Diaries’ by Jim Carrol who trod this path). His addiction and related behaviour harms those from whom he steals, everyone who loves or trusts him suffers for it. Much hard earned taxpayer’s money is spent to try to support and help him, and also to save others from him through the criminal justice system. He casually begets a child for whom he will never lift a finger or pay a penny to care and who will inevitably be disadvantaged. He finally dies aged 27, whether from an overdose, blood poisoning, malnutrition, or several of the above, breaking his poor mother’s heart. I have seen this happen. I believe the story told inTrainspotting is accurate. See also the writings of Theodore Dalrymple the retired prison psychiatrist. Dalrymple is not a Christian but makes some remarkably astute observations about the human condition which chime in well with the idea of Original Sin and our tendency to deceive ourselves into believing we are really good people when our actions are demonstrably wicked. In particular, he notes the tendency of the criminal to justify themself, for example the rapist who says his victim was asking for it or the break in thief who says ‘its all covered by insurance’ etc.

We are not through with our case study yet. There is the suffering caused by the whole criminal organisation that produces and distributes the heroin and cocaine. As the world knows, most of the heroin entering Europe comes from Afghanistan. It production is controlled by warlords who terrorise their own people with the guns they buy from the profits from heroin production. The old lady in Bristol who is mugged for her pension is funding the bullets used to terrorise a police officer in a rural village, or else the bribe he is paid to turn a blind eye.

How precisely would God stop this suffering?

A similar story can be told about Columbia, whose president recently blamed European and American cocaine users for the many thousands of violent deaths and other crimes committed in his country by the drug lords and their gangs. And take a look at what’s happening in Mexico, where something like 50,000 people have been killed in drug trade related crime over the last few years.  Due to the drug cartels targeting any policemen who won’t take their bribes, there is a near complete breakdown of law and order in places. Google Mexico drug war deaths. No wonder the Texans insist on the right to bear arms.

Our choices cause pain to ourselves and others

So let us return to the cause of all this misery, the drug addict and the choices he makes. How would God stop all the suffering he or she causes both directly and indirectly to himself and others? God, if all powerful, could override the man’s conscious desires and make him not want to take drugs. But why stop there? God could also remove any desires the man had of which He did not approve, and fill his will with godly thoughts. But what would God have done here? Effectively, wiped the man’s consciousness and replaced it with a determined programme that controlled his every thought and impulse. He is no longer a man but an android. Would he even have consciousness in such a state? Certainly not personhood. Before insisting that a loving and powerful God, if any, should ‘stop the suffering’ please consider what this would involve. What side effects and collateral damage would God have to inflict on us in removing our capacity to harm others and ourselves?

Let’s take another case, from yesterday’s news, quite literally. I type this on the morning of 14th December 2011, having just listened to the news about a man who attacked a crowd of Christmas shoppers in the Belgian city of Liege yesterday with grenades and guns. He injured over 100 people, many of them seriously, and killed 5, including a small child, then killed himself. Later, his wife’s body was found at their home. The killer’s motive is as yet unclear, but it is reasonable to suppose that he did this because he felt like it, because he could, and because he had no sufficiently strong internal mechanism within him to prevent his deeds. Incidentally, if atheism is true then by killing himself he has entered a state of dreamless sleep and escaped any consequences of his actions.

So how would God have prevented this particular incidence of suffering, which will continue for decades for all the survivors and relatives?

Perhaps ‘angels could have gathered there’ (it was Christmas after all), leaping out like superman to defect bullets, throwing their indestructible bodies between the bursting shrapnel and potential victims. Or God could have turned the bullets into butterflies, the shards of jagged metal from the grenades into confetti. On the other hand, he could have just zapped the bad guy with a thunderbolt, or more prosaically a heart attack or ruptured aortic aneurysm before he carried out the attack. But at a more profound level, as with the addict in the above illustration, God could have invaded, wiped and reprogrammed his mind. But for a clean sweep, how far back in his life would God have had to act? I am minded of a series of brilliant engravings by Hogarth I saw at Tate Britain a few years back ‘The Four Stages of Cruelty’ illustrating a man who starts off  by torturing animals and ends up murdering his pregnant lover. (6)  In his poem commending a youth’s suicide of which I quote the first verse above, A E Housman describes him as ‘the soul that should not have been born.’

 

How would God stop pain and suffering caused by our choices?

But if God acted like that, where would it stop? He’d have to ‘treat’ everybody including you and I. Are great sins qualitatively different from ‘little’ sins? How about God wiping your mind to stop it experiencing thoughts of hate, revenge, jealousy, excessive pleasure or lust? Would the philosopher and pleasure seeker Epicurus have wanted his mind replaced with a God-approved ‘clean’ version?

Do you see where this is going? Free will means free will, something which, incidentally, extreme Calvinists like Fred Phelps and hard line materialists like Dawkins both deny. Thoughts lead to actions which have real consequences. If you want God to ‘Rend the heavens and come down and stop all the suffering’, have you really thought about what you are asking for? If God was to ‘come down and sort it all out!’ what would that mean for you and your life?

Purposes of pain, purification?

The old problem of ‘Where is God when bad things happening to good people?’ is considered in the book of Job. I don’t have time here for a serious study of Job; the whole of this great classic of world literature should be read. Essentially it tells the story of a good man who suffered at Satan’s hands but with God’s permission, lost everything except his wife (who then nagged him) and was ‘comforted’ by friends who blamed the victim. He defends himself and reflects on the situation before God speaks to him out of the whirlwind and sets them all straight, but without giving Job or his friends the answers they wanted.

I think it fair to say that the Job narrative at least suggests that

(A) God may have a purpose in our suffering,

(B) He does not owe us an explanation,

(C) He is still good and powerful despite our present suffering, and

(D) This remains the case even if due to our moral and intellectual limitations we cannot presently understand, accept or agree.

(E) None of us is innocent

Furthermore, as God’s decisions cannot be resisted they should be accepted humbly and we should try to learn from them.

The book of Job is there for a reason and gives us a lot more to think about than Epicurus’ simplistic conundrum. It doesn’t answer all our questions about God and suffering, but helps us fit them into a context and at the very least tells us that the ancients had pondered at least as deeply as us on these grave matters. It’s hard to answer a simple lie with a complex truth. I favour complex Job over simplistic Epicurus.

It can be taken as read that we do not like suffering and just want it to go away, but as I wrote earlier, ‘It is what it is’. I once heard the preacher Bob Mumford say that he felt he heard God speaking to him as he prayed. ‘Mumford, you and I are incompatible, and I don’t change.’

 

There is no point raging against God because all is not as we would wish. What makes us think it should or can be? Are we wiser or more moral than God? Have you ever tried your best to raise a child? Are you familiar with the concept that children do not always know what is best for them? Both Old and New Testament writers tell us that we can become better people though patiently enduring suffering. This is not what we want to hear, but who says that reality has to be comfortable? As the Rolling Stones sang, ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might just find you get what you need.’

But, people will object, ‘I’m not interested in being told there may be some God-knows-what purpose in my suffering, I just want it to stop right now!’ I hear what you’re saying. I hear it often enough in my clinic. A pretty young woman is losing her hair due to a genetic condition. I take my time and tell her as much as I can about her condition, show her the web sites, offer what little comfort and hope I can. She then says, raising her voice as if I hadn’t already been listening carefully, ‘But I’m really, really unhappy about losing my hair!’ And she tells me why, again. I sympathise, again. I maintain eye contact and listen, never going anywhere near the temptation of telling her about my own chronic back pain, inability to father children due to poor sperm production, the difficulties of my adopted daughter who has epilepsy and autism, oh and my own evident hair loss about which I am only concerned in as far as I need to wear a hat to avoid sun damage. Or the mental torture I experience daily about my powerlessness to stop my country sliding into ruin and chaos. But none of this would be any use to her. The heart knows its own sorrow.

Nobody knows how heavy someone else’s disappointment and suffering weighs. But where does this idea come from that we are entitled to experience comfort? Our ancestors before the oil age knew better.  Many of them would even have read or heard sermons on the book of Job and thought it through carefully, thus mentally fortifying themselves against coming disaster. If we hope to survive much past the end of the oil age, say 2070 give or take 40 years, we had better rediscover some of their understanding, realism, and spirit.

We are often told in the New Testament that if we endure pain for doing the right thing, it can have a beneficial purpose in strengthening our character, something good in itself and pleasing to God. Patient endurance can teach us a lot, sharing and relieving other people’s pain can make us better people. Yes, I’d prefer a pain-free world, thank God I expect to find one when I get my new resurrection body through the merits and free grace of the Lord Jesus. I hope you’ll join me. But for now‘this is this.’ We are where we are, and we’re not getting out of it lightly, soon, on our own terms, or by a wishful thinking fantasy solution that takes no account of the realities.

What about the wrathful God?

The least palatable aspect of suffering is the idea of pain which God does not merely allow but actually inflicts on us. Most of us prefer to avoid the issue of God’s righteous wrath, but we read throughout the Bible that he is justly angry with sinners. And this begins at the beginning. Genesis tells us that God made a perfectly good world but then it went horribly wrong with Adam’s sin. This web site is called ‘Question Darwin’ but originally Darwinism was about questioning, and then overthrowing, the Genesis account of origins. We may not like the idea that the suffering, even of the apparently innocent, is actually Man’s fault for disobeying God, but that is what the Bible teaches. This takes us to the very heart of the Darwin mythos: it is nothing at all to do with science, it is about writing God out of human history.

God’s anger is not arbitrary or capricious but just. Given what sin is, it would be wrong of God NOT to be angry. The awful question of deserved punishment is discussed in the last of these essays, entitled Hell. To save us from the full measure of retribution that God’s perfect justice demands, he had to-chose to- send Jesus to do something about it. Jesus became the principal sufferer in the universe, on our behalf. He endured not just the terrible pains of crucifixion as described in an earlier chapter but drank the cup of God’s wrath so we wouldn’t have to. (7, 8) If the Christian religion is true, as I argue the evidence shows at least on balance of probabilities if not beyond reasonable doubt that it is, then this is the bottom line absolute reality context in which we need to consider the problem of pain and suffering. One of Jesus’ titles is Man of Sorrows.

Jesus and all the prophets and apostles warned us to repent of our sins, including the sin of not caring for those whose suffering we have the power to relieve. If our earthly sufferings teach us to come to Christ to avoid future suffering, then just like the bellyache, nausea and fever that warn us to seek the doctor’s advice before our inflamed appendix bursts, they will be well worth it. As someone said, when we get to heaven (if we do) then looking back at the worst that this world threw at us over 70 years or so will seem like one sleepless night in a bad hotel. Karl Marx dismissed such thinking as ‘Pie in the sky when you die’. Nice little slogan, the left are good at slogans, but what if God’s promises and warnings are in fact true? Anyway, I’m not taking any lectures on deceiving people with false promises from the poisonous philosopher who inspired Christ-rejecting tyrants like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Enver Hoxha, Ceausescu and Brezhnev (a cruel atheist tyrant who more than anyone else kick-started the current global jihad that threatens us all by invading Afghanistan in 1979. I would call Brezhnev a pig but I don’t want to insult these harmless and tasty animals).  I think that a fair examination of history and of charity work today will show that men and women who were inspired by the Christian hope have relieved and prevented far more suffering in this world than Marxists ever did.

SUMMARY Human suffering is not God’s fault. Much of it (like the current civil war in Syria) is directly due to human wickedness, the rest is indirectly due to the dire inherited results of Man’s first rebellion against God which we read about in the third chapter of Genesis. Why doesn’t God do something about it? God has done something about it, His name is Jesus, the only truly innocent man who has ever lived. He suffered the pains of hell so that those who acknowledge and repent of their sins and put their faith in him won’t have to.

I hate pain and suffering, that’s why I’m a doctor and why I take analgesia for my chronic back pain, but to assert that suffering, even if extreme, rules out a loving and powerful God demonstrates faulty and inadequate logic. Try to think a bit harder, and look to Jesus. If you aren’t suffering right now, be thankful and do what you can to relieve the suffering of others. If you are suffering, use any legitimate means to get relief, try to endure it and call on Christ, who has suffered more than you and understands (Hebrews 4:15). But don’t succumb to the simplistic reasoning that God owes us a pain free existence and if he doesn’t give us one, we jolly well won’t believe in him! At least allow that your thinking (like mine) is limited by ignorance and bias and you do not have all the facts.

C S Lewis considers these problems in much of his writing, notably ‘The Problem of Pain’ and ‘A Grief Observed.’ which he wrote about his own bereavement. It is an acknowledged classic and recommended reading including for secular bereavement counsellors. There is a lot about enduring suffering in the Bible, several of the Psalms, book of Job, 2nd Corinthians, James,1 Peter in particular.

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning. (9)

(1)   From ‘AShropshireLad’ by A E Housman

(2)   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicurus

(3)   Proverbs ch 23 vss 29-35

(4)   Proverbs chapter 5

(5)   ‘None of these Diseases’ by Dr S I McMillen. Widely available

(6)   http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/hogarth/modernmorals/fourstagesofcruelty.shtm

(7)   1st Peter ch 2 vs 24 ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness’

(8)   Isaiah ch 54 vs 4 ‘…surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.’

(9)   Psalm 30 vs 5

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