Saturday, December 31, 2016

When religious thinking paves your way: Ten ways in which Trump used the arguments we get from Christians to become a god in his own right

Well it's almost the end of 2016. It's safe to say that it's one that we'll never forget. Many are calling it the worst year ever. I don't quite subscribe to that. Undeniably 2016 had it's lows but so have other years before and we'll have lows in years to come too. People have pointed to the death of a number of famous entertainers. Starting with David Bowie and Prince who succumbed early in the year. Since then there appears to have been a steady procession and then a recent spate of deaths again to end the year. I am not sure whether indeed the number of celebrity deaths in this year are significantly higher than any other year. I just feel as if people decided sometime ago that 2016 was horrible and every unfortunate death is met with a "Damn you, 2016!"

I can't remember any other year being held up to such a standard. Perhaps we hope that if we just put all the bad stuff and wrap it up neatly into a 2016 holiday package, we can make ourselves believe that we will have a smooth 2017 with none of the current negativity.

One thing that it's hard for me to deny is that this year has been bizarre. Last week I actually met for the first time ever a believer in a flat earth!  I feel as though my conversation with that guy defined my feeling about 2016. Up can be down, hot can be cold, black can be white, and a circle can be a straight line,  you just need the right person behind it to carry the message and it's all good.

Of course there is one person who was at the cusp of all this, leading the way in the post truth world. None other than the President Elect of the USA, Donald J Trump.

This year I have had the benefit of travelling to a few places in the world and everywhere I have been there has been a similar level of incredulity surrounding Donald  Trump's rise. How could a person so clearly egotistical, misogynistic, bigoted and generally ignorant of  world issues, be in the running to be nominee for a party in the world's most powerful and influential country? How could that person BE the nominee of a major party in the country? How could he actually BE president of that country? At every level that Trump conquered in his journey, the degree of bewilderment just got more and more pronounced.

I am still trying to wrap my mind around it all, but the more I think about it, what has happened is that the world in general has got a taste of the bewilderment that many of us atheists experience when we encounter believers of different stripes within the Christian faith, or indeed any faith.

I'll concentrate on the Christians in my writing here as these are the kind of believers  that I talk with on the most regular basis. I and many other non-believers have often asked them how they  can endorse a book that so clearly demeans women and  foreigners, supports slavery and actually directs the rape of children and slaughter of entire communities. Incredibly to those of us on the atheist side, people of faith find arguments to justify it, still referring to this book as "The Good Book". The book that they are willing to stake their lives on. The book whose author trumps everything and everyone. So, it's not just that they give the book a pass, they turn things upside down and make the book with all the worse things in it, into the standard for GOOD! They swear on it! It is indeed their gospel truth.

I, and I daresay the majority of my fellow atheists in the world of activists,  have sought to push against religions and faith for this reason. It seems clear to us that religion is one of the main devices, if not the only device under which this inversion of morality can occur on a mass scale. We have made this argument again and again about how belief in religious dogma can be dangerous. Over and over again we have been told that we are a bit extreme in blaming religion for everything. We are accused of falsely assuming that a little belief in a book that gives people hope and purpose in life can actually harm somebody. Many people have assured us that the people of faith know and understand that the way of thinking they use in church shouldn't be and cannot be applied to other aspects of life, where the ability to reason is the one and only thing that matters.

So even the world's most fundamentalist believer can be a brilliant scientist, an insightful economist or and A+ scholar when needed. He can make informed and rational decisions about which is the best route to take to get home, what is the best part of town to live in, or who is the best candidate to vote for. This I considered a reasonable counter argument to my position, one that at least gave me pause. There are indeed lots of good examples of people who have not allowed their irrational religious faith cups to runneth over into other critical aspects of life, and to the extent that these people are able to get the psychological and emotional benefits from those beliefs, they appear to be winning the game. They appear to be able to effectively  cherry pick what they want for  their faith life without damaging their overall reasoning capabilities. In an odd way I sometimes admire these people.  The way that they are able to  self delude, so that the faith support that is so much available from religious institutions all around us,  can be used by them to get through the dark days and nights. We as atheists are well aware that as soon as we accept that we don't believe, we lose any opportunity to get benefit from those beliefs that we consider logically unjustifiable.

But this year has made me look again at the argument that suggests that it is difficult for irrational beliefs encouraged by religious groups to spill over to other areas. Indeed, 2016 provided a text book case on  how religious thinking can overflow from that shallow faith box and be capitalized on by a person skilled in the art of the con. We always knew it could happen. We have seen totalitarianism backed up by various forms of dogma throughout history. However,  for many of us living in North America and the Caribbean, who have had experiences of relatively stable democratic governments, it was incredible to see the USA succumbing to uncritical thinking in such a dramatic way.  I guess it's just a reminder that anyone, any country, any population in the world can get taken in. None of us can be complacent. We can't assume that we'll always be rational, we can't assume that the people around us that we see every day will always be rational. All of us are vulnerable to personal biases and fallacious arguments.

That's one of the reasons why I love to be part of the skeptic community. It's not that skeptics can't become trapped in superstitious thinking or irrational beliefs. It's just that I think that when you make it part of your life to actively try to minimize personal biases and flawed reasoning that can hurt you,  you are just a little more likely to actually recognize the con when it comes. You might still fall for it, but at a minimum you are a bit better equipped to handle it and maybe find a way out.

In contrast, religious organizations encourage you to put that reasoning aside and go with your subjective feelings which are highly influenced by your personal upbringing and the individuals and leaders that you have put your trust in from the time you were small.

For Christians, this means the church, the bible and Jesus in the main. The faithful are taught to hold on and defend those beliefs come what may. And we atheists see this in action often if we care to enter into debates or discussions with them.  It's my view that they became so used to using flawed reasoning in defence of their belief that it was not difficult for someone like Donald Trump to gain legitimacy by using those same techniques.

Below I will show you ten ways in which Donald Trump borrowed from arguments commonly used by Christians to defend their beliefs to atheists. I'll give you first the common argument for God we get from Christianity and then show how Trump used it to get the same immunity from responsibility or blame for actions that the gods typically get from their followers.

1.  'Nobody is perfect. He who is without sin cast the first stone'

How Christians use it 

This is a classic technique used by religious people when they want to deflect from the 'sins' committed by someone from within their ranks. More often that not it is to defend some pastor who has been caught doing the very thing he preaches not to do.  Might be a Jimmy Swaggart found in a hotel with a prostitute, or Pastor Eddie Long found having sex with a young boy in the choir. Here the idea there are trying to put forward is that nobody is perfect and everybody falls short. Of course what other people do is irrelevant to their argument. But the aim here is to try to make you feel guilty for trying to hold them to a standard. It's a form of gas-lighting where the implication is that the fault is with YOU in trying to hold THEM to impossible standards. It makes the person being accused sound humble as they admit that they are less than ideal. Of course condemning these people for their practises is not an attempt to hold them to an impossible standard, it's just to hold them to a standard they have set for others. But conveniently many of the believers do not see it that way.

How Trump used it

Trump went straight for this argument after the Access Hollywood tape showed that he had made some demeaning and insulting comments about women. He immediately said the he had never claimed to be a 'perfect person'.  Trying to make it seem that people were expecting perfection from him. Of course that was never the case. We just wanted to hold him accountable for his action. But his response implied that it was the accusers that were being unreasonable, not him. His only crime 'was not being perfect'. This victim blaming is exactly the same used by Christians in arguing that ' he who is without sin cast the first stone'.

2. ' You are not worthy to judge my faith without having a personal experience with the faith'

This is another one we hear a lot as atheists. Many Christians believe that their personal experience with god and in faith, means that they have the insider knowledge and that gives them the leg up on we who have had no such experience. They might make the argument that you can't expect to argue about the effectiveness of a drug if you have never studied medicine or pharmacy. Of course this is a bad analogy. We know medicine and drugs exist and we have a well established scientific protocol to investigate and evaluate them. In the case of  religion vs atheism, it's the existence of God that is under investigation. You can't start by claiming the existence of the thing for which you are trying to  give evidence. Flawed argument it may be, but by using this technique, you can dismiss anyone who disagrees with you as being an unreliable witness. You are effectively saying that the only people that can give an opinion on the existence of your god and the veracity of your religion, are those who already believe. It's circular, but it can work for people who already believe and don't think through the argument carefully.

How Trump used it

Trump and his supporters used this by just saying that a lot of the people who were saying bad things about Trump, didn't really know him. They couldn't really judge him unless they were in the inner circle and new the 'real' Donald Trump. Those trustworthy people were those like his family his children and his close advisors like Kelly Ann Conway. Those folk had never experienced all the horrible things Trump was accused of. Those were the people whose opinions really mattered, not the angry non believers on the outside. Yes, the only people worthy of judging Trump were the ones who already believed in Trump. Very simple way to 'poison the well' and dismiss the opposers through what is a variant of an 'ad hominem' attack.

3. ' Atheism is a religion too!'

How Christians use it

This is another tactic the religious like to use, and it can be extremely effective! Very often we atheists get caught up in definitions for 'religion' and in the end it becomes an argument of semantics and no substantive point is really made on either side.

The reason that religious people like to make this argument has become clear to me over the years. It's an attempt to put your position and theirs on an equal footing, when in reality there is a huge difference. They are the ones making the claim, the atheist is not making an equal counter claim of 'no god'. The theists are the ones that are making the supernatural claim and need to provide the evidence.

By claiming atheism is a religion, theists aim to argue that both atheism and Christianity are equally unfounded. Both relying on 'faith' to prop them up. As such, it makes sense to choose the worldview that provides more benefit and gives more hope. At worst they can make the 'undecideds' out there believe that atheism vs Christianity is an 'eeny-meeny' decision and once it comes down to a toss up like that, there is always a fair chance that the coin will land their way.

How Trump used it

This was an important technique for Trump to use. Similarly to the people arguing on the side of religious faith, he had little in the way of facts to offer. So he just had to argue in the debates with Hilary Clinton, that Clinton also was arguing from a non factual basis.

He had to emphasize that SHE was being dishonest and had no factual  basis for what she was claiming. And just like many of us who  are atheists, Clinton got caught up in trying to defend why the position she was given was indeed based in fact. Arguing strongly that there was science and evidence to back up what she was saying. But Trump had none of it,  he still maintained that she was  arguing dishonestly, putting forward her own faith position that her followers would obviously swallow uncritically. The more time Clinton spent defending her 'facts',  the less time time there was  to address the weakness or gaps in Trumps version of the truth.

Often the debate came down to

 "You're lying"
" No you're the one that's lying"
"You're a puppet"
"No you're the puppet"

as a back and forth.

No different than  the

 "Atheism is a religion"
" No atheism is not a religion!"
" It takes more faith to be an atheist!"
" No atheism is not a faith"

that I have heard so many times in the atheism vs theism debates.

In the minds of people watching, these kind of exchanges can seem like childish " Yes you are!" " No I am not!" shouting matches.  They tend to bring down the credibility of both participants in the eyes of  observers. So it feels like it's a draw with both players being equally bad. If you are in a debate where you are weaker and you can make your supporters think that you at least held the other one to a draw, it's an equivalent of a victory. Spectators will always go for the one they like  better in a case like that. If you can make that be you, you're home free. I have seen it  happen in many a debate of creationism vs evolution. Trump played the game exactly that same way,  he may have lost in the scientific battle,  but he won the rhetorical game and that was all that mattered in the end.

4. 'Why do you keep ridiculing my faith?'

How Christians use it

This is a big one and is honestly one of the most difficult ones to deal with when a Christian brings it up. It's hard to counter, because to a large extent it is true, we do tend to ridicule faith quite a bit within the atheist community even when we try to do it in a respectable way. Of course we always explain that  it's the belief we ridicule and not the believers themselves. But it's a hard sell, especially if the Christian herself holds the beliefs in question extremely deeply.

Often this accusation of ridiculing is followed up with the idea that we think they are stupid. Again this is a tough one to hear. Generally speaking I don't believe that believers are stupid at all. There are many I know who I would rate as being more informed and more rational than me in many areas. It's just that they have not quite given the degree of skepticism necessary to this one cherished belief. But it's still not always to easy to convince them that you are not insulting them personally.

Once you get to that point, it's hard to go forward with the argument because the believer feels a bit insulted and will tend to dig in to their beliefs, even if they at some level recognize the points you are making. I know for myself that when I get to this point I usually back off the argument in order to not offend further. I tend not to push ahead with arguments when I feel the interlocutor is being severely effected emotionally. So they can go away feeling like a winner, not because they made a good argument but because they successfully disarmed me from effectively making mine.

How Trump used it

Trump used this much better than I gave him credit for initially. We can all point to a number of laughably ridiculous ideas that Trump had from the start.  Building a wall across the US Mexican border? How could you help but laugh at an idea like that. It's as implausible as Jonah in the belly of a fish or Noah and his floating boat. Hard to hear any of these ideas as a faith  'outsider' and not snicker or downright fall over laughing.

Not allowing any Muslims in to the country? How could you administer something like that? Go after families of terrorists to torture them for the 'sins' of their sons or fathers? How could any of that be taken seriously? But getting us to laugh was a great weapon that Trump had. Late night shows also played they part by ridiculing the ridiculous. The more we laughed, the more his supporters thought we were laughing at them and their leader. They felt insulted and dug in their support even deeper.

In the end there were attempts to let them know that our problem was with Trump not with those who had been the unfortunate (not stupid) victims taken in by Trump. But it was too late, they felt insulted and ridiculed and we felt the backlash at the polls.

5. ' Why do you always pick out the bad parts of the bible, why ignore all the good?

How Christians use it

This is again a deflecting technique. It's not surprising that atheists in critiquing the bible point to the absurdities and atrocities and the contradictions that go throughout the bible, rather than the good advice and the stories that emphasize peace and love. We do this because so many Christians make the argument that the book is authored or inspired by God. It would stand to reason that a book with divine authorship would be flawless, ALL good. Why would a divine being allow bad advice or ludicrous ideas to be circulated in his name?

Yet, I can think of many times that Christians when made to face embarrassing parts of their holy book, simply point to another verse that offers an entirely different idea. So once they can point to Jesus' command to ' love thy neighbour as thyself ' the book is all good and worthy as an object of worship.  It doesn't  matter how many times other passages in the book sound like the rantings of a barbaric cult.

For those of us looking from the outside the only thing these 'good' passages do is highlight the contradictions throughout the bible. They do nothing to nullify earlier passages. But for those within the faith already, they can hold on to these 'good' passages that are clearly understood and then live with the fact that they just don't quite have the level of understanding to explain those horror passages.

How Trump used it

There is an old saying that  ' even a broken clock is right twice a day'.  The idea being that no matter how inaccurate or dysfunctional something is it can be correct sometimes, just as a matter of chance.

Trump is a master at saying anything and everything. Comments coming out of him often fly as fast  and erratic as an AR 15 machine gun. The contradictions are often sprayed left. right and centre.  Even today as I write this, Trump tweeted that Obama was putting every obstacle in place to stop the transition but at a later press conference also TODAY,  Trump said he had phone call with Obama   that was  'very nice'  and the  transition was going ahead smoothly.

This kind of juxtaposition is no less jarring than what we find so often in the 'good book'. From one who has 'not come to bring peace but a sword' but yet is 'peace' himself. One who wants you to leave your family to follow him but also love your family and build around them. One who created evil and yet comes to destroy it. A god who is somehow all merciful and yet all just. It's enough to make you dizzy, but the great thing is, that whatever the situation, whatever the idea or philosophy you want to promote, there is something somewhere within that bible to support it.

Trump now can do the same thing.  Anything he does that you don't agree with? No problem, you just have to find one instance of something opposite that he has said in the past and that is the nullifier. So 20 women can come forward and say he molested them but all you need is one to come forward and say, he always treated her respectfully and that seals the issue. And just like the bible,  Trump words carry much more weight than action. So when he emphatically states ' no one respects women more than ME!" that all but ends the debate. No different that when a Christian gives us the 'love thy neighbour' quote, drops the mic and walks out.

6. ' God is good all the time and all the time God is good!" (or some other meaningless catch phrase)

How Christians use it

Yes, you know it and you've heard it. Things that are said that sound good because there is a rhyme or a nice alliteration, But when you break them down even the most ardent followers can't explain what it means. God is good! What does that really mean? Does it mean that good is defined by what God does? If so it's a tautology, like saying God is god or good is good. If good has a definition independent from God, how can you be sure that God will always be good? How could you assess that unless you had the ability to observe everything that God ever did and knew everything that God would ever do in the future? What human being could do that?  Clearly it's just a statement where the hope is that repetition will make it true. I have yet to have a Christian explain to me how they arrived at that ' God is good all the time' knowledge and whether the good comes before the God or the God comes before the good. But it doesn't matter.

There are other similar phrases like ' Christianity is not a religion it's a relationship" This is another vacuous statement. It's done to imply that Christianity is somehow different from other faiths, that there is some relationship that makes their faith unique. But when you try to break it down, it is puzzling. Whether there is a relationship or not, surely Christianity is a religion. There is a still a set of core beliefs that one has to believe as a matter of faith. Denominations may differ on some details, but there is still some dogma to be accepted.  Religion and relationship are not mutually exclusive. And what is the relationship they speak of? How is that defined? How can you assess that when you can't even give evidence to satisfy anyone outside of the faith that the entity even exists? The words are empty, but is sounds good to the believer. It is a cool catch phrase, that they can repeat when people challenge them. That is enough to keep many believers confident in maintaining their  positions.

How Trump used it

As a former TV reality show star, Trump knows all about using the catchy phrases to get the attention of viewers and maintain it. The 'sound good', emotionally satisfying phrases that don't actually have to have any real meaning.

The big one he went to from early was 'Make America great again!" From the time he made that statement people were asking what that meant. Was America great in the past? If so when did it stop being great? What factors removed the greatness? What were examples of the things that would need to be restored to make America great again? What measures could you employ to determine the point at which America could justifiably be considered great again?  We never got an answer to any of these questions, but his supporters didn't care. They went out to the rallies and bought the hats in their millions. Everyone wants to be great and to make something great. Just like everyone wants the assurance of worshipping a good god.

The other catchphrase that Trump came with was "Drain the Swamp!" again it sounded exciting and aggressive but we also had no clear idea what he really meant by that. What exactly was that swamp? How was he draining it? What was being replaced? How could we know when this process was complete? Was the drain a drain of people, policies, ideas? What were they talking about?

That's the beauty of the catch phrase, meaning is always secondary. It  just has to be something simple and memorable that people can sing together in chorus and feel good about. It works in church and it certainly worked in Trump's congregations all across the US.

7. ' Doesn't matter what evidence I give you, you'll never believe in God, you have an anti God worldview from the start'

How Christians use it

This is another way in which the religious attempt to disarm the atheists in discussion and debate. The idea here is to make it seem that the disbelief is not based on reason or evaluation of the evidence. It's based on a presupposition of. non existence of the supernatural. If that were true, of course it would mean that no evidence would be sufficient to convince us. But what evidence do they have to make this assessment of us? Most of the time we give them at least some evidence that if available would make us have a second look at what we believe. A few instances of human limbs growing back or people suddenly walking out of graves would certainly help to tip the scales towards belief in the supernatural. But many Christians dismiss all that talk from us and simply conclude that we would stubbornly resist any possible evidence, because we just MUST believe that there is no God there.

By convincing themselves that all we are doing is conveniently choosing a 'non god' worldview, they feel justified in choosing a worldview of their own and putting a god in it. It's similar to the claim that 'atheism is a religion' discussed earlier. The more they can discredit the legitimacy of our analysis the more they can feel justified in sticking to their own unfalsifiable beliefs.

How Trump used it

Trump and his supporters use this technique a lot too. Any view against Trump is just because you are biased against him from the start. They argue that there is nothing that Trump could do that would make us change our view of him. We just start from the presupposition " Trump = bad". There is some truth in the fact that this is how many people see him. But it's not just because we believe that apriori. It's just that this is the evidence that Trump keeps presenting us again and again and again.

We would be happy to change our views if given evidence to the contrary, it's just that we never get it. So it just seems reasonable to conclude that we likely will never get it. But that's not how his supporters see it. They still consider those against them to be brainwashed by somebody. The media, the regressive left, the academic elites. Somebody out there is deceiving us in a similar manner to how the devil has been doing since Eve was tempted in that magical garden.

Meanwhile, those in the Trump camp continue to essentially do what they were accusing the other side of doing, dismissing those on the other side no matter what. For many on Trump side, Hilary Clinton was synonymous with the devil. That was their chosen worldview. She was 'Crooked Hilary' by definition. One of the easiest way to emphasize a presupposition is by creating  a label for a person. A definition to be applied before the discussion even starts. Trump was a master at this, whether it was "Crooked Hilary" "Lying Ted' " Little Marco" or " Low Energy Jeb".

So, just like the religious people, all Trump did was accuse the opposition of doing exactly what was his own trade. It put those on the other side on the defensive and they just weren't able to counter it. How can you accuse everyone else of bias and deceit while you engage in it blatantly? Religions have been doing it for years. Trump just jumped on that bandwagon.

8. "They're still many questions that science can't answer'.

How Christians use it

This is an effective tactic often used in debate, helping to distract from the lack of evidence for the religious idea being presented. It's an argument from ignorance but it is amazing how many people I have met for whom this argument helped them become more open to belief in the supernatural.

For sure, there are lots of mysteries of the universe that science has yet to provide satisfying answers. Foremost among these are the details of how the universe that we live in got started and how life, conscious living organisms, first came to be on this planet. However, in spite of these gaps in the knowledge, the amount that we have learnt through the application of the scientific method is nothing short of remarkable. Indeed all the things that we feel justified to call 'facts'  about the universe have been revealed to us through coming up with hypotheses, testing these hypotheses through observations or other available evidence and drawing inferences. That is the scientific method in a nutshell and without it I could not be typing on a computer and you couldn't receive the ideas coming out of  my head, thousands of miles away on the other side of the world.

Still, in spite of the undeniable success of this method, people consider that it's not enough on it's own. There must be something more, some other way outside of this mainstream method that we need to tap into, to gain the other elusive knowledge floating somewhere out there in the ether. For many people this other way is through their God and their religion. A mysterious method for connecting directly with the universe that some kind of prayer, meditation or obscure form of telepathy  can unlock.

Unlike the scientific method, these other areas have not contributed to human knowledge. It's not to say that engaging in forms of spiritual reflexion are a waste of time, it's just that when it comes to knowledge about reality itself, they don't take us closer. This can be clearly shown by the fact that any time that people attempt to justify these methods, they attempt to get some verification through science. So far no mechanism they have suggested has led to any knowledge that gives results that are consistently reliable.

It really is like going in to a room realizing that the hand stand there is shaky and  concluding that it's therefore better to throw it out and hang your hat on an invisible hat stand instead.

How Trump used it

Well Trump of course jumped all over this idea that our religious friends often raise with us. Again it was highly effective given his own lack of knowledge and understanding of the subjects he was dealing with. Once the debate could focus on the weaknesses of his opposition, he never had to give any arguments or evidence of what he was proposing. Instead of hitting at the weakness of  'science' as religious people generally do, Trump's opponent was 'the establishment' Arguing against how the established systems, the established personnel, the establish institutions had failed to provide the benefits to the country and the world that they had been put there to do. This is undeniably true. It's just like the scientific method discussed earlier. Many of the social and political institutions in the US and further afield fall short of what they should be doing. There is corruption and human greed and desire to manipulate that get in the way many times. But still the benefits such as they are, have also been served by these same institutions. It would stand to reason that where such institutions and systems fall down, the way to fix is to see where the weaknesses are and attempt to make them stronger or more effective. Foe those that have no longer the ability to provide benefits, we can get rid of those altogether, but we always need to have something that that we can replace it with. A new idea or theory that has at least an equal level off legitimacy to to take its place. That's how changes and modifications are made in the scientific world and it is how you would expect to changes in the socio political world to be made as well.

But Trump rode on the argument that the religious fundamentalists and creationists often use. The entrenched theory isn't working as well it should so you need something new. Something totally different 'an outsider'. The argument is since those in there aren't able to fix all the problems, you need someone with no experience, no track record, no evidence to support his ability to fix any of the issues at hand, to do the job. The idea that what we need to fix a  political situation is a person whose main claim to the top position is ' he's not a politician' is in essence no different from religious people suggesting that the way to fill the gaps that science has been incapable of filling is by embracing total 'non-science' with 'an outsider' theory like creationism.

Yes, Trump tapped into that ever growing idea that facts, evidence and science are secondary to just raw passion, aggression and talk about what you can do. You're on a plane about to crash, forget the guy with five years of flight school that barely failed his final flight exam yesterday, leave it in the hands of the mouthy 10 year old who once when to the airport with his dad and saw a couple planes land and take off from the tarmac.

9 ' You can't take the bible literally

How Christians use it

This is the favourite of the liberal Christian and it was one of my go to arguments as well when I was on the Christian side. These kind of arguments make religions far more palatable for people who tend to have a more intellectual approach when looking at faith.

There is no doubt that the bible has a considerable amount of poetry and artistry in putting forth its messages. Parables and allegories would have been a large part of the culture and tradition from which the scriptures that eventually came to make up the bible emerged. However, that not withstanding, there are times when the scriptures give clear instructions for genocide and rape. In such situations it's hard to argue that these are examples of the bible using an analogy or being poetic. Furthermore, even if it weren't literal what deeper positive lesson for life could be obtained from such stories? So you should go out and figuratively kill all the Amalekites, metaphorically take all the women and concubines for yourself?

Of course what we get from believers when passages like this come up, is that we are taking the bible 'out of context'.  Really? But in what context, place or time in the history of mankind could rape, slavery, misogyny, xenophobia and blood sacrifice be a good thing? Still haven't got an answer, but it is amazing how effective the 'out of context free'  card is played by the religious and how effective it is in sweeping away the obvious horrors of the bible that would be  declared as abhorrent had they appeared as passages in any other book on the planet.

How Trump used it

Well it's his supporters and apologists that mainly used this tactic. Trump himself just reaped the benefits. Trump went about making statements with his typical bravado and brashness in the lead up to the election.

Declaring that he will build a wall to keep the Mexicans out, speaking about the problems  with immigrants from that country, suggesting that they send their worst people, rapists among many other things. He spoke about a complete ban on muslims entering the country until they could figure out 'what was going on'. He spoke about going after families of terrorists and torturing them for information because 'they have to know something'. This is just the tip of the iceberg, he made many many more statements that had us  scratching our heads. They were extreme and absurd ideas in lots of cases but his base seemed to love them and he kept going up in the polls.

At the same time those on the opposing side sat in a bit of shock wondering how anyone could believe that these actions were either plausible or desirable. As Trump has now moved to President Elect, inevitably he had to back track, and that's when the apologists have come to his rescue, suggesting that the problem is that many people take Trump too literally. They tell us that we must remember that Trump is a past TV reality show host and is accustomed  to using provocative behaviour and language to boost ratings and keep audiences coming back. Hyperbole and stretching the facts for a cheap laugh or online zinger are part of his everyday trade. We as pundits were naive to think that what Trump brought in his campaign would be anything like the serious presidential leader that we would see after January 20th 2017.

Seriously? This is the sort of nationalization we get when Christians tell us we should just forget the God of the Old Testament, because things were different back then. The droves of supporters that went to his rallies weren't backing him because they thought he was speaking in parables. They didn't jump on his bandwagon because he was going to build  a metaphorical wall to keep out Mexicans. They loved him because he was a straight talker and didn't try to sugar coat what he was saying, He was direct, that's what they liked, they said that over and over again. Now the argument is you can't take hm literally? How can you reconcile those two positions? Well clearly his supporters can, in the same way that supporters of the bible can too!

Many Christians will point to the fantastical claims of the bible as reasons to follow Christ. Who else has a saviour that walked on water, fed 5000 from two loaves, was dead and came back to life three days later? These 'facts' for many Christians is the reason they serve Jesus, because he has done things that prove that he is no ordinary man. But then when you challenge them about the veracity of these claims, there are another set of believers that come behind to say these are parables meant to convey a deeper non literal meaning. But if that's the case why is the bible special, different from any other book that uses stories or parables to give deeper meanings? Would Christianity have the millions of followers if it was just presented as a good self help book for living, with a few decent stories to make it a tad more interesting to read? Let's not fool ourselves, the appeal of the religion comes from the widespread idea that God and Jesus did do the things the bible says. That's what initially draws in the people even if they later drop some of those more bizarre stories with talking snakes and donkeys and a human living in a fish for almost a week.

It's the same with Trump. His following came because of his extreme fantastical statements. The 'crazy' things he said he would do are what made him popular among his people. Whether you are a bible or Trump believer you can't have it both ways. You either have to admit that you are for them because of the extremes that others find controversial or you have to go with the idea that the extremes don't move you, in which case you have to make the argument as to why your  Mr. Trump or holy bible is any different from others out there that are basically doing the same thing and believing in the same ideals.

Well at least that is what should happen. In reality both bible believers and Trump supporters  have found a way to have their cake and eat it too,  So this is what we get,

The bible is the clear, infallible and undeniable word of god, the unequivocal manual for everyone's life........except you can't take it literally


Donald Trump is the clear speaking, strong , emphatic. shooting from the hip, unequivocal truth teller, the firm kind of leader that the world  needs.................except we can't take what he says literally.

10. ' There are mysteries of God that we will never understand, we just have to have faith'.

How Christians use it

This is usually the last argument we get when we are discussing the issue of God's existence with a believer. That's why I have included it as the final one here. It's the last argument you get because usually by this time all the other defences have been shown to be inadequate. This one is often seen as their final trump card. God, they say, is above man's understanding. His ways are higher than ours. Whatever we can't understand is our shortcoming, there are some mysteries of God we just have to accept even though they may make no sense to us humans. So our inability to understand is always a fault in our comprehension, it can never be a fault in God's communication. For some unknown reason there are just some secrets that God has to keep to himself, no matter how much it may benefit us to have them.

So they win, because there is no way that we atheists can prove that this secret knowledge of the divine that would explain all the contradictions and absurdities doesn't exist.

How Trump used it

Well, as a former  host of ' The Apprentice' , Trump is well aware of how to market the idea of mystery.  He knows how to use the smoke and mirrors and uncertain plot directions to make sure you're back in front of the TV screen same time next week to watch the next episode. He knows he can never divulge it all, even on one of his debates he laughably made the comment that he would leave the country in suspense about whether he would accept the election results or not.

He used the idea of suspense all through his campaign. How would he deal with ISIS? Of course he had a plan. a great plan, the greatest plan ever, after all he knows more about ISIS than the generals do. And what is the plan? You guessed it, it's a mystery. 'Why would I divulge my plan I don't want my opponents to know what I will do before it happens'. That was Trump's master statement. Once it's a secret you don't have to give out anything.

You just have to keep saying "Believe me!" "Believe me!" "BELIEVE ME!"  which is the exact equivalent of the Christian phrase " You just got to have faith!"

Yes that's how it works. First you set up the mystery, then you claim that only you have the ability to understand it,  and then you implore to everyone else that they need to have faith in you. After that it's plain sailing.

And that's how Trump did it. how he confounded us all and sailed smoothly into the White House. There is a verse in the bible that speaks of the foolishness of God being used to confound the wise. We have no better example of this than with Donald Trump in November 2016.

So, to any Christians reading this. If you have ever used any of the arguments above in an attempt to defend the existence of your God or the truth of your particular religion, I  regret to tell you, but Trump has taken his strategy directly from your playbook. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying the rise of Trump is the fault of Christians, I am just showing that the ideas which are required to argue for a faith, any faith can easily be used to argue for a totalitarian leader or dictator. It's just a matter of changing the object to whom the faith is directed  from God 'X" to God "Y".

So Trump effectively made himself into the 'Y" to substitute for the "X" in the equation,. Among his subjects he is the one, the anointed. Like the God of many of the religions he has full powers, he can do whatever he wants and he knows it.

He has no accountability to anyone or anything.  He can bring you into his world and he can take you out. He himself supersedes reason. Many Christians are taught that truth is not a statement it is a person. That person is the big J man, Jesus. Well for the next four years, it's the big Donald J that will be that big 'T'  Truth for those that have come to worship and bow down.

All I can say is 'God help us!' but that would mean praying to the same Trump who is already there with all powers of command, the one who is already successfully getting us to do whatever he wants us to do, all for his benefit. Yes, The  'saviour' Donald  who expects us to continually give him praise for doing things according to his own will for his own purposes. So  in reality there is not much difference between Trump and  any of the other gods. His actions are pretty much business-as-usual operation for any deity,

But, in defence of the new Trump god, is he really asking for anything more that the other Gods that have walked the earth and heavens before him? I don't think so. The only difference is that those other gods ( at least most of them) have been thankfully imaginary. But the Donald!  I wish we could wish him away like the monster under the bed, but sorry kids and adults too,  DJT is very, very real.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The firm foundation that never was: The ‘mosquito sting’ that grew into atheism-

Growing up in the island of Barbados, being a Christian was as natural to me as breathing oxygen. Even at five years old, I figured that I had the God thing all worked out. “ It’s he that hath made us and not we ourselves” That was Psalm 100, we recited it at least once a week at school. Whenever we said it, I would look at my little dark coloured hands with curiosity. I knew for sure that I hadn’t made those. I could scarcely make a sand castle that would stay up for more than eight seconds. No way I could have manufactured these limbs, even limbs that had a long way to go to even approach competence, far less perfection.

Far too young to understand the term” false dichotomy” the argument from Psalm 100 made perfect sense to my young super impressionable mind. I looked at the world around me and saw even more beauty and complexity in nature all around me. The birds, the flowers, the trees, the cute animals and the savage beasts all giving testimony to this wondrous creator God. Hymns sung at school like “All Things Bright and Beautiful, the Lord God made them all” and “ He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” helped to reinforce that everything we enjoy in this world came from Him.

I am sure that for most of us who grew up in the Caribbean, this is what it was like. God’s existence was something that was as undeniable as the sight of the bright yellow sun hanging in the air or the sounds of the crashing waves driving against the shore. In our culture, even the notion that there might not be a creator was often something greeted with a snicker. It was unfathomable to most people, to even begin to entertain such a ludicrous idea.

I was no different at that point. My ‘god box’ was checked off early. I believed in God sincerely and I wanted to be like him in every way I could. To me, that meant trying to be on my best behavior, to be obedient. I was convinced by many of my early  teachers,  that a docile accommodating follower by faith alone was what Jesus wanted. Life seemed so easy when I interacted with such people. Do what you are told and everything would be allright.

But at home things were a bit different from school. Mainly because of my dad, who although devoted and faithful in his church attendance, viewed his Holy book differently from anybody else that I knew at that time.  I recognized this one day after church when I was seven years old. We were sitting down to our regular Sunday lunch when Daddy reflected on the church service earlier. He addressed the popular Noah’s ark story that I had known from the time I was four years old.

“ The animals came in two by two?  That’s ridiculous! How could you get two of EVERYTHING! How would Noah have been able to get two mosquitoes on that Ark? How would he catch them? And how would he make sure he had two and only two of the required gender?”
Daddy laughed, and when I saw him laughing I felt comfortable enough to laugh too. I didn’t realize it then, but that was perhaps one of the most important moments in my life as a skeptic or critical thinker. It was the day that the bible for me was stripped of its holiness.  That comment about the mosquito, humorous as it was, caused a sharp sting . Any notion that the bible was the infallible word of God was gone in that instant and that was a little unsettling. Who was the ultimate authority now? Who was I to obey? What text could I look to now to give that overall unquestioned guidance?

Atheism was at that time years, even decades away, but I now realize that it was that first ‘sting’ that got me up and moving in the direction of reason.  I know people today fifty, sixty years old that still haven’t gotten their mosquito moment, and revel in the unblemished skin of there revered faith. They pray for me, pity me for the soreness that they are sure I am still enduring. But for all the buzzing in the ears that they may get from all the people outside their religion, they do all they can to spray away everything. They even sometimes cover themselves in an impenetrable net to make sure that not even the smallest bug can threaten to override their faith program and the book that it relies on.

In contrast, my own ‘mosquito’ moment led me to look critically at several other things in the bible. My dad was again there to give me a few more not so gentle pricks, pointing out how the Adam and Eve story, Jonah and the whale, the tower of Babel were all just as implausible as the Aesops’s Fables we read at night. Still through all of that, my family and I remained committed to the church. We prayed together and we asked for God’s blessings on all we did. I suppose the God we prayed to was the Christian God, but to be honest, we didn’t mention Jesus much if at all. By the time I became a teenager the notion of a risen savior and miracle worker seemed unlikely at best.

Learning more about science around that time also tended to expand the divide between the bible and me. I was surprised when I first went to university in Barbados, that so many of my colleagues were still strict fundamentalists. There was one “Development of Civilization” first year class that was especially controversial. So much so that many dropped it, even though it was a foundational class. The course was one of my favourites, it traced the history of human beings right back to Africa and explored the origins back to pre historic humans such as Australopithicines and Homo Erectus. It upset quite a few people who thought the classes flew in the face of the bible and ‘creation’. Amazing when you think that we are talking about classes at the University of West Indies Cave Hill in the 1990s!

But the lecturer for the course who had an especially entertaining style, would not be deterred. He took on the religious people  in the class directly. He would start up on his own call and response routine during class.

“ How do you know that Jesus really died and resurrected? “
“ Because somebody told you that.”
“How do you know the bible is really the word of God?”
“Because somebody told you that.”
“ How do you know Moses parted the Red Sea?”
“Because somebody told you that.”
“ How do you know that Mary was a virgin when she got pregnant with Jesus?
“Because somebody told you that”.

And he went on.

I know he annoyed a lot of students, but his point really couldn’t be refuted. You could say that it was God who revealed these things through the bible. But did anyone ever come to the conclusion on their own that this was the case? Of course not!  it’s always some other individual that at some point tells you that. A teacher, a parent, a grandparent, a priest, a trusted friend.

And why did the people who told you that believe? Because someone else told them! Their parent, their priest, some person in their community that they trusted. And so it goes on. There is no verification, no analysis you could conduct to show that a person can arrive at such a position independently. Work back to the ‘truth’ of your religion starting from first principles like you can do in Mathematics?
No. It simply cannot be done. Religious truths are always the truth simply because somebody else says so, it’s the ultimate argument from authority.

And that’s the explanation for people in all other religions as well. Whether you were born into it, or whether you were pulled into it later, it can always be traced back to a person who one day told you something was true and you believed them.  The fact that most people claim that they get their beliefs through personal experiences says a lot.  It’s actually more like a PERSONAL assertion made by a PERSON you have faith in. That’s how people generally find their Gods.

Once I realized that beliefs really came from the word of man, rather than God, it was obviously hard to still accept the bible as the ultimate guide. It was clear by the time I was 25 years old that my religion was only an accident of birth. The bible was just a cultural relic that happened to fall in my lap. But still I believed in God, through it all, none of the evidence that I had come across had convinced me that there was no overall creator of everything, that there was not some entity, some power out there that had ultimate dominion over everything.

I remained a Christian out of convenience.  As a musician, I played the music, I sang the songs (and even wrote some) out of respect for my tradition. What God actually was, I couldn’t tell you. But I knew I felt him in my heart. It was that ‘warm and fuzzy’ that I felt sometimes at the low points, that gave me the assurance that someone out there was always looking after me. I was comfortable as an open theist in a Christian world. That’s where I stood up to the dawn of the year 2007. There’s no way I could have predicted the transformation in my belief system that led me to identify myself as an atheist just two years later. But unknown to me, that early ‘mosquito sting’ had be followed by so many more little bites here and there, that It became difficult for me to ignore the marks on me that were becoming more apparent. Still there seemed no serious threat that my faith skin would finally be shed.  But it did, starting with a tragic day in July of 2007.

Right in the midst of the local Crop Over celebrations in Barbados, a bus carrying passengers to the East Coast to enjoy the Party Monarch finals crashed on the way, as the driver lost control in the middle of a hill. Six people died including Adrian Franklin, who was a friend of mine and classmate both at primary and secondary school. I always felt a special bond with Adrian, as we were born exactly one week apart. Adrian’s death was a huge shock to my system. I realized when reading his obituary that it could so easily have been he reading mine. It was almost like reading my own eulogy, only the name and photo in the article were different. I began to question God a lot in the days after, Not that this was the first time I had done this. However, the feelings were stronger than usual on this occasion. It seemed the cruelest of cruel, for God to do something like this, causing so much pain to families whose only ‘sin’ was to want to go out and have a fun time on a Sunday afternoon.

After that tragedy came two similarly gruesome multiple death incidents in Barbados. There was a car accident that took four lives just days later and then came a cave-in of a house in Brittons Hill that took out an entire family of five while there were peacefully sleeping in their recently acquired home. Three tragedies of this magnitude in the space of two weeks, was something very rare in a country as small as Barbados, with only 270,000 inhabitants. The tragedies touched everybody. It was virtually impossible for you not to be connected in some way to one of the people that was lost across those three accidents.

In the aftermath I remember that there was a telethon to raise money for the families left behind to struggle after all three tragic events.  I was watching still dumbfounded when a moment came that I will never forget. Belle Holder the hostess on the CBC (The Barbados TV station) at the time said the following words.
“We don’t now why things like these happen, it’s a mystery!”

I turned to the TV and blurted out,  “It’s a mystery? It’s only a mystery if a God exists. If no god exists then there’s no mystery.”

I caught myself and was almost shaking. What did I just say? Yes, it was the first time in my life that I had ever really entertained the thought that God might not exist. I went over what I said and realized this was a huge sting. But this one would not just go away in minutes like others before and it wouldn’t be covered up by any flimsy band-aid either. I had to look into this latest cut more deeply.

The feeling was definitely strange. It’s not that I had never been exposed  to the concept of atheism. I even had a close atheist friend once. It’s just that I had never REALLY thought about it, or considered it as something that could be right. But that changed immediately at this moment in question, as I realized that without a God a collapsed roof or failing brakes are perfectly understandable. It’s just the laws of Physics at work. And sometimes we are on the right side and sometimes not. Sometimes we are lucky and sometimes not. Whether we deserve it or not is irrelevant. So good things happen to good people, bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to bad people.

It’s not that I became an atheist at that moment, but that was the pivotal point. That was the day when I stopped assuming that a God existed. God belief was no longer my default position. This new perspective led me to think a lot, I decided to give myself a test. For the next week I would live my life as if a God did not exist. It would be my chance to look at the world through a non believer’s eyes. I never expected to stay there, I just wanted to know what it was like, so I could better understand a perspective that I had never really entertained before.

An amazing thing happened. The more that I thought about it, the more obvious it became to me that the things I experienced in the world made much more sense if there wasn’t a God there. There were gaps in understanding. The origin of the universe, the origin of life and the explanation for the emergence of consciousness are still not completely understood. However, these are the only large gaps within a complex tapestry. I came to realize that these gaps were nothing to panic over.  There were more of an opportunity for future learning than a earth shattering piece of ignorance that had to be expunged right away.

The other thing I noticed during that test week was just how prevalent God and religion were in Barbados. I was genuinely shocked that I had never noticed this before. These are some of the phrases I frequently heard.

“Praise the Lord thank God”
“ If God spare life”
“ I just here waiting on the Lord”
“Lord come for your world!”
“ Get me vexed and I’ll let you know which God you serving!”
“ Only God knows why you would do such a thing!”
“ Jesus is Coming Soon (Again)”
“It’s written in God’s word the bible!”

But how many times did I actually hear someone making an argument for why they believed this God was there, coming back, or working in some way? None, not one. No one ever did because no one was ever asked to back up the talk. There was never a need to justify. They appeared to be just as convinced as adults, as I was at five with my Psalm 100 evidence.

What was more, was that in spite of the lack of evidence by these God claimers, their statements were presented with an expression of certainty. There was no ‘if’, ‘perhaps’, ‘might’ or ‘maybe’. God for these people was not only true, he was obviously true.  For these people it wasn’t about belief, it was about knowledge.  Knowledge ultimately gained from the bible that everybody somehow just KNEW was true.

That was just the point, when it came to God in the Caribbean, we just KNEW. Assumed knowledge is a vital component of any faith system and it’s not so hard to see why.  Because one thing about knowledge, is that you don’t question it. There is no need for further investigation. You can tick that box and move on. And many of our people do exactly that. They move on to questions like:

“What does God want from me?”
“How should I worship him?”
“What wonders does he have in store for me?”
‘Why has he given me this cross to bear?”

But these statements are all begging the question.  They all rather surreptitiously brush aside a glaring unsupported God assumption underneath.

I am thankful for that first ‘mosquito sting’ that got me  questioning and digging deeper into assumptions from early.  So thankful that the ‘sting’ eventually made me realize that trying to turn assumption into knowledge was a sleight of hand, no less plausible than a fairy tale where a Rumpelstultskin claims he can spin gold from feeble straw.

Yes, it took me over 35 years before that first ‘sting’ stated to really burn. But now I understand that naked assumption was all my faith was ever built on, and that having the unanimity on this one fact by all who I was in contact at the time, didn’t make it in any way close to truth.

 Once I recognized this assumption, my faith skin fell away and  the long ago pain of the ‘sting’ began to feel more like the jolt of a spring. A spring to push me higher and further in pursuit of knowledge.

In becoming an atheist, it’s not that I discovered any piece of evidence that disproved the God I knew, nothing that I unearthed to firmly knock the Lord off of his sacred perch. I just simply came to the realization that there was never any foundation beneath him to keep him standing up in the first place.