31 October 2008

The Alpha Course is Further Pissing Me Off

Over the past couple of days, I have been told repeatedly that I'm closed to Jesus, that I’m not “looking for him with my heart” and other such drivel. It’s true that whenever one of the people at Alpha comes up with a new argument for me to believe, I attack it. I attack it hard. And my default position is that all this Jesus stuff is bunk. But that should never be confused with me not being open to new information. I’m just not so open-minded that my brains fall out. I treat what they say as I would anything else – all new ideas and arguments must past muster. What they say does not. And because of this, I’m told I’m not open to Jesus. I say, show me an argument that doesn’t suck and I’ll accept it gladly. Until then, you suck and I’ll ignore you.

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29 October 2008

The Alpha Course is Pissing Me Off

One thing that is surprising me about my participation in the Alpha Course is that my anger boils to the surface at very odd provocations.

For instance, it’s not the terrible doctrine discussed during Day 4 that pisses me off (that the vast majority of humanity is condemned to eternal torment in hell through no fault of their own) . What pissed me off was the uncritical 180 degree turn the people in my group made, a turn they made without realizing or acknowledging it. They have suspended their critical faculties. In return, I get angry.

Again, another example is the repeated claim that the historical evidence for Jesus’s life is as strong as for any person in history, with Gumbel using the Julius Caesar analogy in an earlier sermon and the lawyer guy using Alexander the Great yesterday. What bothers me is that it’s such a weird claim to make. I’ve repeatedly pointed out to my group that I don’t need evidence for Jesus’s life to be as strong as for Caesar; just provide SOME good evidence that he was as advertised (which they haven’t done, but I don’t really begrudge them that). But what they do is keep making extravagant claims about how fantastically well historically supported Jesus is, "As much as anyone else in history," despite all evidence to the contrary. Frankly, that just hurts my brain and tremendously pisses me off.

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27 October 2008

Alpha Course Day 4: How Can I Be Sure of My Faith?

Dinner: Actually excellent this time, and by far the best thing about this night’s session. Chicken breast in a light fruity sauce with green beans, bread, salad. Dessert: Homemade apple crumble made by a girl in my discussion group.

Part 1: Sermon

Honestly, I found this to be the most disjointed and meandering sermon so far by a wide margin. It touched on many things including:

-How God wants us to be sure of our faith.

That’s nice of him. Let’s see how this pans out…

-How we must not rely on only our feelings which can be changeable and may even be deceptive.

Good advice. Too bad it’s ignored completely by everyone in my discussion group and by Gumbel himself later in the sermon.

-How faith is supported by God’s promises.

Which we then have to “dare to believe through faith,” as the course manual says, thus making the whole “sure of our faith” thing rather circular.

-How we can also be sure of our faith through the works of Jesus.

Which we accept as true based on the same criteria as for God’s promises above.

-How new believers have their lives changed through the presence of the Holy Spirit; their characters, relationships, and feelings all change.

Big Whoop. You’ll find converts to any belief system, Islam, Buddhism, even atheism, claiming their lives have been changed. Feelings don’t prove anything.

-Finally, here are a bunch of new feelings you’ve probably experienced since you’ve been taking this course: new love for God, desire to read the Bible, sense of forgiveness, new concern for others, enjoyment of worshipping God, desire to meet other Christians.

Wow, this is one big happy-feely love fest all of a sudden. I’m pretty sure that this marks the point where everyone is just expected to be Christian now.

Thankfully, and amazingly, he did not do a single name drop during the sermon. Perhaps he figures that by this time, most attendees have already been convinced and don’t need to be further coerced by celebrities.

Part 2: Small Groups

This one was a painful session. Also note that we did not talk about the sermon at all, so this will be about other topics.

Before we got to the formal discussion, my wife asked the lawyer guy (recall day 2) what his big transformative experience was, as it had confounded both of us. I think we were both hoping for an answer that was a 'big deal,' like some big personal trauma or big supernatural revelation. Instead, this normally intelligent and logical guy explained that, one time when accompanying his wife to church, he got to hear one of “my church’s” best musicians doing a very emotional song. Suddenly, he just started crying like a baby and realized he was ready to believe. So much for rational faith.

We also discussed the testimony of a guy getting baptized at the church service this past weekend. The group leader brought it up because she thought it would be very meaningful and relevant for me since the guy was described as “a logical, scientific person” by both himself and by people who know him, and he said that before his conversion “he thought he had it all figured out” and was a “flaming atheist.” First problem: he grew up in a Christian family and those family members got him to read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. He said that, though it didn’t convert him, the first part of Mere Christianity caused his logical brain to feel uneasy. But the first part of Mere Christianity is the argument from morality, so, in a word, yikes; therefore, I doubt he’s as logical as he thinks he is. The second much bigger problem was that his conversion wasn’t due to solving any of the evidential issues I’ve been bringing up. Instead it was due to what he termed a 'Pauline experience' – for reasons he left unelaborated, he almost died by the side of the road somewhere in Africa and feels he was saved by God. While this is certainly a big deal that stands a good chance of converting anybody who experiences it (even me), I explained that it doesn’t actually do me any good, as an anecdote of this nature fails as evidence and I’m not the one who experienced it.

The lawyer guy also told me about another argument he just heard that he found convincing for proving the historicity of Jesus. The argument involved comparing the legacy organizations left behind by Alexander the Great - different mini-empires that lasted varying lengths of time after his death - with the legacy organization of Jesus - namely, the church. The existence of these organizations are undeniable for both Alexander and Jesus, and we don't deny that Alexander existed; therefore Jesus is as proven as Alexander.

Problem the first: Jesus did not found the institutions of his own religion; it was Paul and other church founders who did. If anything, this proves Paul existed.

Problem the second: He could have said, “We can infer the existence of Alexander the Great by the existence of the organizational structures he left behind; therefore, we can use similar tests to infer the existence of Jesus,” which, while I’ve shown this is incorrect, I don’t actually have a problem with. Instead, he says, “We can infer the existence of Alexander the Great by the existence of the organizational structures he left behind; therefore, Jesus is just as historically proven as Alexander!” But this is stupid; even if the same argument could be made for Jesus as for Alexander, and Jesus could actually be inferred to have existed to a strong probability, there is mind-bogglingly more evidence for Alexander than there is for Jesus: coins minted with his image from when he ruled, dozens of cities named Alexandria (and one named after his horse), contemporary accounts from biographers, historical implications in the cultures of conquered peoples who obviously wouldn’t be pro-Alexander, tombs of his family members, etc.

The lawyer guy could tell that I was shutting him down and getting angry with him, so he questioned if I didn’t want to believe that Jesus existed even as a non-supernatural historical figure. I told him that I didn’t really have a strong opinion about that (I lean towards Jesus as a composite of a relatively mundane historical rabbi, savior mythology, and some anonymous wise-man quotes). And I told him that what really pissed me off is that he expected an obviously misleading argument to be convincing.

Finally, we spent most of the discussion time addressing a question one guy had last week: "do people who honestly have no significant opportunity to embrace Christianity get condemned to hell?"

The group leader went away last week and did some research, finding a couple of bible quotes and some commentary from some Christian scholar who edited her bible. The verses she gave were Romans 2:12-16 and Romans 1:18-20. First, Romans 2:12-16:
12All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
Now Romans 1:18-20:
18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
Those passages, and the commentary about those passages, convinced the group leader that all people were required to follow Christianity to make it to heaven. As I summed up, it screws the African tribals.

And at first, everybody who said anything in response agreed. Tribal dudes were screwed and still need to live according to God's laws. But, according to the commentary by the bible scholar, this still gave them a chance to make it in because of humanity's inate ability to be good people and to sense God's presence (ie. all societies have religion of some sort and most people don't go around killing people).

"But wait," I interjected, "Don't these verses mean that you CAN get to heaven through works alone?"

"No," the group leader said, "you need to believe in Jesus."

"That's what I thought. So according to the quotes, 'obeying the law' means both being good AND accepting Jesus, right?" They agreed. "Then, doesn't this still mean isolated tribals are still almost guaranteed to be screwed because they would be required to independently come up with a half-way decent Christianity analog (ie. monotheist but with a God-son sacrificed for your sins)?" They agreed again.

So I hammered home the point that this is unethical and evil; you can't infinitely punish someone for something that is not their fault.

The group leader then went on the defensive and proceeded to talk for about 5 minutes just saying how God's ethics and actions were unknowable and that he has a plan and we don't know what it is but we can be assured that it is good because God knows better than us and who are we to judge?

After that, several other group members jumped in and said how they believed that God would take this into account. Their feelings were that it WAS unfair, so God couldn't be that way.

I was speechless; with mouth agape, I gestured madly at the bible in the group leader's hands. In essense, screw the bible verses we just read and uniformly agreed on, screw literalism, and screw the respected biblical commentator.

In one respect, I was happy that they decided that it was unethical to sentence unknowing people to Hell. And I'll admit I'm not a theologian and I don't know if our interpretation was correct. However, I was extremely disturbed that they could just flip-flop like that and not even notice the problem.

Just say "God is unknowable" and then fall back on feelings and you can uncritically change the goalposts as much as you want.

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26 October 2008

Are the Montreal Canadiens a religion?

A professor at the Université de Montréal is going to start teaching a graduate class studying the Montreal Canadiens hockey club as religion.

Are the Montreal Canadiens a religion? Well, they do have a goalie nicknamed Jesus Price, and some have claimed that touching Rocket Richard's jersey has healed them.

If the Habs are a religion, then the Leafs are Scientologists.

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25 October 2008

Preamble to Alpha Day 4 - I'm getting pissed

There are purely theological questions discussed in Alpha, things like “What about babies who die? Or mature tribals who never get to hear about Jesus? How does Jesus’s death work as a sacrifice if he’s no longer dead?” However, what I’m interested in is more the historicity of it; prove to me within a reasonable doubt that the bible can be trusted. There are also the scientific arguments; Christianity (at least literal interpretations) contains many claims that can be tested against what we observe in the natural world, and the only way for Christianity to be true is if it agrees with observations (or if Christians admit that God is being a lying dick – strangely, I’ve met few Christians willing to go that far). For me, these (history and science) need to be addressed to my satisfaction if I’m to go anywhere near Christianity as a belief upon which to centre my life. Once these are addressed, then the theology would become important, but before that, it’s just intellectual masturbation.

The theology in this case is the icing; the historicity and the agreement with the natural world is the cake. I’ll debate the icing, but really it doesn’t concern me much when the cake is still missing. Unfortunately, I’ve looked ahead in the course and it seems that from this point on, Alpha concerns itself not only with icing, but with sprinkles, candles, cherries, and serving a big piece to your overweight cousin Darryl. But there’s still no cake.

Stay tuned for my summary of day 4 of Alpha, which will explain why I’ve introduced this post with such a snarky editorial. But for now, all this cake talk makes a good segue into discussing dinner.

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20 October 2008

Real Manifestation of God in “My Church”

Something spooky and powerful ALMOST happened the other day in “my church” (in quotations because it’s really my wife’s church – she just drags me there). I was in church minding my own business (trying to nap in my seat) when the pastor’s tone changed as he got very hot ‘n’ bothered during the sermon. “Today we've thought about Jesus, and we've talked about Jesus. But now, instead of just leaving like we usually do, we're going to actually ask Jesus to do something here. We're going to be in relationship with him and actually ask him to move.” Needless to say, I suddenly woke up.

“Holy turd pucks!” I exclaimed in my head, as I’m wont to do when surprised.

I actually became somewhat worried, nervous, and excited. Was their going to be crazy speaking in tongues? Was everyone going to sprout stigmata? Was Jesus’s giant, disembodied/ethereal head going to appear above us?

Then the pastor continued and told all those in the audience struggling with such and such a faith problem to stand up. They did. Then he instructed everyone to pray for them and their challenges. Then he told them to sit down. He then made everyone with another type of faith problem stand up. Everyone prayed for them, too. Then a third group stood up. More prayers.

Then, the pastor triumphantly proclaimed, “Doesn’t it feel much better to have actually done something?”

Oy. Seems like their “just talking” and their “actually doing something/Jesus manifests himself” are more or less the same damn thing. What a disappointment.

I went back to sleep.

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17 October 2008

Alpha Course Day 3: Why did Jesus Die?

Dinner = A really, really bland shepherd’s pie, salad. Dessert = Assorted dessert squares (actually not bad).

Seriously, this was disappointing. I know the cook had to spend hours preparing ~40 lbs of potatoes, but the result was quite mediocre. The scary thing was that a number of people raved about the dinner this week.

You know, Toronto is easily one of the most multicultural cities in the world. That, however, does not extend to the sprawling suburbs east of Toronto , which are as white as Wonderbread and about as cultured. These people probably think a boiled-wiener hotdog with plain yellow mustard is haute cuisine.

NB. If you think I’m being too mean about this, especially compared to the relatively academic tone of the religion debates, please remember that I’m mainly attending Alpha for the food.

Part 1: Sermon

Nicky Gumbel’s video this week was about why Jesus had to die. Names dropped this week included Madonna, Jennifer Aniston, Bono, Naomi Campbell, the Pope, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The good news was this was all constrained to the introduction as he was talking about people who wear crosses.

The sermon was quite simplistic. Gumbel actually spent most of it just explaining how we are all sinners (at least in God’s “everyone falls short of my perfection” definition of sin); therefore, we all fall short of God and are doomed to/deserve death and hell. But! God is so forgiving that he would take it upon himself to suffer and die in our place so we can get the heaven deal when we die. As long as we believe in Jesus, that is.

That was basically it. A lot of demonstrating how we can be judged to fall short of God and trying to argue how by simply not being perfect, hell is justified. Magic loophole tacked on at the end, and voila.

There was no real discussion as to why an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God would create imperfect creatures then judge them to an impossibly strict standard involving not just real crimes but also irrational rules, then arbitrarily assign an all-or-nothing justice system with punishment for the inevitable failure being eternal even though the crimes are finite. Also no reason was given why this God would then decide to sacrifice himself to himself in our place in order to let us off the hook, rather than simply snap his incorporeal fingers and change the crappy rules that he himself set in place. And, of course, no discussion as to why this magic loophole should only exist for those who believe that he did sacrifice himself.

As for sin, Gumbel had to rely on the “thought police” style of crimes primarily introduced by Jesus in the NT, like lust being exactly the same as adultery and anger towards someone being the same as murder, in order to convince people that they have all sinned. He then said that the standard of comparison is not the best human example (who still has a few sins to his/her name) but to the perfection of Jesus, so you’re doomed to fall short. Then, he says that, in stark contrast to human justice where a minor crime gets a small fine, God says than when you break one law, you’ve broken all of them, and therefore deserve Hell.

Good job, Christianity. You’ve taken essentially good people and twisted them to think they are 100% evil. Kudos.

To introduce the solution of Jesus’s sacrifice, Gumbel used the example of Fr. Maxamillian Colby, the priest who sacrificed his life in place of another prisoner sentenced to die in the Nazi concentration camp in Austvich. Admitting that all analogies break down eventually, I wonder what this says about Christianity that in this analogy, God isn’t just Colby but he’s also the Nazis (Hmm, did I just Godwin myself?). Anyway, Gumbel believes God/Jesus’s sacrifice was even more amazing than Colby’s.

There was quite a bit of background talk about how horrible crucifixion was as a method of execution. To me, this seems completely irrelevant to the discussion. Jesus is God, eh? What’s a little horrible torture to an omnipotent being? The real point (still quite silly, though) is that Jesus was executed by humanity to take the punishment for humanity’s sins. Crucifixion, lethal injection, burning at the stake: it doesn’t really matter. Besides, crucifixion was bad but Mediaeval people (mostly Christians themselves) came up with stuff that was even worse.

Gumbel ended with a few more analogies for what Jesus did for humanity. His favourite one was two school friends who go their separate ways, one who becomes a judge and the other who becomes a criminal. The criminal friend ends up in the judge friend’s court and pleads guilty. As Gumbel says, there are consequences so the judge can’t let his friend off the hook, so he sentences the friend to the hefty fine he deserves, and then pays the fine for his friend.

How is this justice? There are consequences but how are consequences meaningful when they aren’t felt by those who deserve the consequences?

Part 2: Small Groups

Sadly, the discussion started with a bunch of group members talking about how moving and powerful Mel Gibson’s snuff film was. I could tell it wasn’t going to be that productive of a day.

The group discussion kind of mirrored the sermon in that most of it was spent on discussing sin and guilt rather than the Jesus part. During this, I basically talked about the irrationality of the all-or-nothing (one broken law = broke the entire set of laws) approach to morality God is taking. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only person who had problems with this view; I had support even from some dedicated Christians. Of course, they were willing to let God’s ethics remain mysterious while I hammered home the arbitrariness of the system.

Unfortunately, we spent so much time just talking about sins in general - how secular societies have crimes based on real-world effects instead of sins against God’s law, just what makes a sin, and how guilt relates to sin - that we were left with only 5 minutes to talk about Jesus’s part in all of this. Ie. The resurrection as substitute for our punishment.

Only being able to strike once, I chose to appeal to the higher ethics of humanity. There is nothing wrong with accepting the gift of redemption and forgiveness from the person you have wronged. However, getting back to the story of the judge and his criminal friend, what is better: the criminal accepting his friend's offer to pay his debt for him? or the criminal saying, thanks, but no, I need to repay this on my own, and making his own amends the best he can? There already exists a higher ethic to aspire to than what Christianity holds as its pinnicle.

And, on that note, it was time to leave.

As we were leaving, two of the other vocal members of the group, both highly pro-Christianity, came up to me to say that I was asking really good questions and that they were happy I was in their group. I'll take that as a very good compliment; however, I'm a bit worried that since I haven't disturbed them yet, I'm not being confrontational enough.

Finally, we talked to the group leader a bit, and she said that there was actually at least one more non-Christian in the group that she knew of. I was surprised, and argued with her that every single person last week made some mention of being Christian during the introductions. Then I realized where I went wrong; a couple of people had only said that they grew up Christian. They made no mention of what they were now or if they went to church. So I have at least one person to step up to the plate for during our small group discussions.

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16 October 2008

How to Argue Against Emotion?

I need some advice. In the Alpha Course I’m currently attending, I have been bringing up many logical and factual problems with Christianity during the group discussions. Talking about these questions in the groups has been interesting and somewhat fruitful, but, quickly, any answers given from the religious group members (which are almost all of them) reduce to appeals to emotion, and feeling, and knowing God’s love, and all that crap. I can’t just steamroller over their beliefs and feelings since that’s a surefire way for them to disrespect anything I say. Hell, I can’t even respectfully disagree and give alternative rational viewpoints for anything they believe in based on feelings. I’ve tried with my wife; she interprets any response other than, “your feelings have won me over; of course Christianity must be true” as a personal attack. There is even one girl in our group who just starts crying from time to time due to the emotion of thinking about Jesus.

So my question is: how do you argue effectively with people whose viewpoints are entirely based on feelings? Right now, whenever the Alpha discussions descend into emotional territory I’ve just had to drop whatever I’ve been arguing for and move on to another topic because it’s a dead end.

Any suggestions?

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10 October 2008

Alpha Course Day 2: Who is Jesus?

Dinner = Ham with pineapples (blah), boiled broccoli and cauliflower (blah), creamy scalloped potatoes (good), and a green salad (blah). Dessert = Carrot cake (blah).

Our table had some serious discussions with the organizer about unleashing the cook from the “can’t offend the taste buds of the bland old people” directive he’s been under. He’s Indian and I’ll bet he could make some killer curries if he was given the mandate to do so.

Part 1: Sermon

We watched Gumbel’s video about who Jesus was historically, what he said about himself, and the implications of these claims.

The sermon started with Gumbel talking about his journey to Christianity. According to his story, he was an atheist in college when his roommate suddenly converted to Christianity. Confused as to why his friend would do such a thing, he started reading the New Testament (NT) and he finished the thing in a few days of almost solid reading (he must have been enrolled in a slacker artsy program; no engineer would have time to read like that) and by the end of reading the NT, he had come to the conclusion that Christianity was true.

What a vomit-inducing story. I don’t know if I’m justified in suspecting the story is a lie, as I don’t like to dismiss what other people say about themselves without evidence, but it seems highly unlikely that a skeptical person could read one book about a supernatural happening and come away totally convinced. I’m also skeptical that a skeptic could be that enthralled by the bible; even most Christians don’t get enthusiastic about reading their bibles. Hell, I’ve read NT verses and have found my eyes glazing over out of boredom in minutes, and I read science and history books for fun.

Getting back to the sermon itself, it started by looking at the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus, which Gumbel portrayed as being solid. Historically, the non-New Testament evidence for Jesus really is zero. All he referenced were the very meager mentions in the writings of Tacitus, Seutonius (his supposed Jesus quote probably only referred to Christians in Rome and not Jesus himself; at least he wrote a work called Lives of Famous Whores), and Josephus. He even tried to pretend that Josephus was writing practically contemporarily with Jesus, despite the fact that Josephus wrote his Jesus comments in ~94 AD. Unfortunately for Gumbel’s assertions, these guys all wrote generations after the events of the gospels and almost certainly gained all their information from the stories told of Jesus by Christians. A nice little article about this is provided on Internet Infidels.

Gumbel then tried to prove that the NT is accurate by comparing it to a number of other ancient works using this table:

Work, When Written, Earliest Copies, Time Span (yrs), No of Copies

Herodotus, 488-428 BC, 900 AD, 1300, 8
Thucydides, 460-400 BC, 900 AD, 1300, 8
Tacitus, 100 AD, 1100 AD, 1000, 20
Caesar's Gallic War, 58-50 BC, 900 AD, 950, 9-10
Livy's Roman History, 59 BC - 17AD, 900 AD, 950, 20
New Testament, 40-100AD, 130 AD in part 250 AD full, 300, 5000 Greek 10000 Latin, 9300 other

The big problem is that the number of copies doesn’t really matter. It’s the truthfulness of the content that is important. For instance, the table lists Herodotus, and while we don’t doubt that he was a tremendously important pioneering historian, like almost all pioneers, his results kind of sucked, in that subsequent investigations show that he was often wrong.

Unfortunately, from this point on, the NT itself was used as its own proof. Can you say:
[image lovingly ripped-off from the almighty Plognark]

So Gumbel uses the bible to prove that Jesus was human, claimed to be Son of God, and did miracles. Seriously. Gumbel’s argument to prove that Jesus said what the bible says he said is to quote the bible saying more of what Jesus said. Other "proofs" were his absence from the tomb and his appearances to the disciples, again only referring to the NT. Funny the 500+ people he appeared to didn’t write anything down about his resurrection (nor the zombies emerging from their graves at the same time) other than what found its way into the NT. He then hit upon CS Lewis’s Liar, Lunatic, or Lord argument. With all due respect to Lewis and Gumbel, this calls out for a Spaceballs reference:

Dark Helmet [as King Roland]: Vespa, come to me.
Vespa: Daddy, is it really you?
DH [as KR]: Yes, my dear, I guarantee it. Would I lie?
V: Daddy.
[Vespa reaches King Roland, who turns into Dark Helmet]
DH: Fooled you! Ha-ha-ha!

Part 2: Small Groups

We were assigned into groups of about a dozen according to rough age. Our group had a good mix of male and female, all late 20s to early 30s. One woman became very depressed when she realized she was so old as to not be in the youngest group.

We introduced ourselves, briefly explaining why we were there. I was more or less truthful, saying that I was not Christian or religious, and I was there primarily because my wife coerced me to and there was going to be food. I also said that they were going to have to be very convincing for me to change my mind. I omitted the fact that I was also there to obtain blog content.

You know, for a course that claims to be aimed at non-Christians, the number of non-Christians in the group was surprisingly small. The number:

One. Just me.

Every single one of them was a committed Christian already. Some were new, most had grown up that way and were looking for a refresher. Many were talking the course for a second or third time. One honest thing about Alpha is that they claim to be welcoming and as non-judgmental as your average person can be. I can honestly say that no one was put-off or intimidated by my stating that I wasn’t one of them and that I would be somewhat confrontational wrt the contents of the Alpha sermons.

Wrt my confrontationalism, I must admit I was probably the most vocal person there. In general I stuck to either items from the video or comments other group members made, and while I was confrontational, I tried to not push or antagonize. There was one instance where I completely lost my cool, and it happened right away. During the introductions, one group member mentioned that she came to Alpha after being inspired by reading the book The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel [spits]. Our group leader then recommended Strobel in absolutely glowing terms, explaining how he was a journalist who started atheist, then set about writing a book to crush Christianity, interviewed leading theologians with hard-hitting questions, looked at archeological and scientific data, and came away a Christian. She also warned that, even though the book was great, it was difficult reading.

It was at that point that I snapped and interrupted her, stating that, firstly, scientific data was part of a different book he wrote, The Case for a Creator, the science in that book was utter garbage, and that the reading level was actually very easy. I stopped short of calling her an imbecile for thinking Strobel’s writing was difficult, but it was excruciatingly hard for me because that statement pissed me off the most. I must admit that it became very difficult to take any of what she said seriously after that. That said, it was a completely over-the-top outburst that I wish I had been able to contain.

Only about half of the dozen of us contributed much to the discussions. Of these, all made a point of their emotional rather than rational reasons for their belief in Christianity. This made it difficult on me because I really have no comments to make about that. The only one who actually seemed to care at all about evidence was a divorce lawyer who had recently become Christian because of an undisclosed major event in his life, so even though he was fairly rational, he also had serious emotional reasons as the foundation for his faith.

The lawyer guy actually beat me to the punch about the "number of ancient copies" problem. Ignoring for a moment the work of scholars like Bart Ehrman which detail how the bible has changed over the centuries and why, we both emphasized that the analysis shown in the sermon only indicates that, as literature, the ancient bible copies maintained fairly good fidelity to the original writings from a few hundred years earlier. It does not help prove the truthfulness of the original writings, which were written ~100 years after the alleged events they chronicle.

I tried to hammer home the lack of extra-biblical evidence. Again, the impression I got was that everyone other than the lawyer did not care. The bible is true, why bother with what anyone else thinks? For what it’s worth, the lawyer and I agreed that Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus were all too late to be valuable as references. He also figured that Josephus, while being slightly less late, was not that trustworthy, given that he was a turncoat and political crony and all. I tried to be diplomatic and state that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; I believe my exact words were, "I’m just disappointed by the lack of extra-biblical evidence." Fair enough?

I’m afraid I got drawn into a long-slogging argument about the Liar, Lunatic, or Lord argument because I challenged it on its own terms. I should have reiterated that the argument is meaningless until the reliability of the bible is confirmed. Instead I went about arguing that it is possible to be a liar and still be able to spread good morals (afterall, even the vile pirate Jebediah Springfield inspired his followers: "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man"):

I argued: What if you hated how the people around you behaved unethically? You have a strong, almost fanatical sense of what morality is, and you really think people should follow your way of thought. However, they don’t pay you any mind. So you tap into the local religious consciousness (unfortunately bending your own morals about lying along the way) and raise a big fuss about yourself, claiming to be God etc. Now you have followers; followers who will finally live their lives the way you believe in and will teach others to do likewise. (You throw in a little megalomania just for kicks). And there you have it: a great moral teacher who isn’t bonkers but also isn’t God - a liar who still manages to be not evil (though admittedly not as good as he could be if he wasn’t lying).

While falling on deaf ears, this did not turn out to be a complete waste of time, at least for me. I learned something about how this particular mindset of Christianity thinks. In essence, they have a really low opinion of humanity. In this case, they couldn’t fathom how someone who wasn’t God could piss people off and put themselves at risk and yet not get anything out of it themselves. They always expected the liar to be selfish. They kept asking me, "What’s in it for Jesus then?" They never could understand that helping others to be better people can be rewarding in and of itself. In a completely separate conversation, one woman couldn’t believe that someone who was not God could come up with Jesus’s teachings as they were so perfect and so different from any other human teaching. As if a species that claims the likes of Einstein, Mozart, and Plato would be unable to handle the Sermon on the Mount. Confucius was teaching things like the golden rule 500 years before Jesus anyhow.

And, lo and behold, before we knew it we had run 15 minutes over time and barely scratched the surface of the sermon. I’m not sure if I would say that I had a good time or a bad time. The group atmosphere was pleasant enough, but the discussions weren’t what I’d like them to be. Often I felt like a brick wall would answer questions with more thoughtfulness than many of the people in the group; there were quite a few outpourings of emotion but very few attempts at logical discussion. And, like many Christians (including my wife), there exists no evidence that can change their minds about Christianity. I’ll just have to accept that I’m of a different mindset than everyone else there and try my best to understand them in the coming weeks.

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07 October 2008

KA’s hitting myself in the nuts

I occasionally write about kicking people in the nuts. What if you want to kick yourself in the nuts? Not easy. However, you can hit yourself in the junk very easily in other ways. Uncomfortably, that was the case for me last week.

The scene: rec floorhockey. We play in an elementary school gym, one featuring basketball nets with big pads mounted on the wall behind them to protect players attacking the basket from cracking their heads open. Very good things, those pads. Under normal circumstances.

However, under other circumstances, floorhockey circumstances, they are not so good. Say, you’re trying to carry the ball at speed around the back of the opponent’s net. The ball is bouncing, so you lift you stick up a bit and reach out to try to corral the ball that’s bouncing away from you. Just then, as your stick is outstretched, the blade of your stick embeds itself between the big pad and the wall it’s mounted on. The stick stops suddenly. And if you remember Newton, you’re inertia keeps you moving forward. Moving forward at high speed directly into the butt-end of your stick. A stick that happens to be firmly wedged in front of you and pointed directly at your groin. With only a millisecond of travel time between you and the stick, there is nothing you can do but take it right in the dingle-dangle and hope for the best.

A teammate said that it looked like I was doing a pole vault (hehe, POLE vault).

Everyone stopped and asked if I was alright. My wife, meanwhile, just shook her head in disgust and motioned for me to get off the floor lest I embarrass her further.

I was lucky; the butt-end of the stick missed the most vital bits by about 1 cm, so it could have been much worse. It hurt, but there should be no difficulties producing children.

However, what was bad was that the teammate who called it a pole vault also happens to work for my company. And she told everybody.

I might have to change jobs.

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05 October 2008

Alpha Day 1: Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant

Last Tuesday night was intro night. Dinner = lasagna of reasonable quality, Caesar salad, garlic bread (too tame) and mushrooms. Dessert = ample pie and ice cream. I was really tired so I drank too much coffee. It didn’t help in keeping me awake for the video, but it did keep me from falling asleep that night in bed. Unfortunately, since it was intro day, we did not break into groups to discuss the sermon, which was too bad.

If you’re just showing up, you might want to read the previous two posts: Alpha Course: see it again for the first time, and Alpha Course Primer. These will get you up to date on what Alpha is and why I’m attending.

The introductory sermon was entitled “Christianity: Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant?” In it Nicky Gumbel attempts to address these three common reasons given by non-Christians about why they aren’t. Let’s go through what Gumbel said about each of them:


I was pretty tired that night so I might have slept through it, but I’m pretty sure he never said anything to counter the “boring” accusation.


For me, this is the deal breaker, and the one that I had the argument about with my wife afterward.

In this, Gumbel did a particularly unconvincing job. You’d think that if you wanted to convince people of something’s truth, you’d demonstrate it with your best evidence. In fact, not one shred of evidence was given (hopefully the other lectures on the subject will provide some). Instead, he started out by telling a story of when he was an atheist in school. He was “so misguided” that he had written an essay detailing his proof that there was no God, and that the quality of theological knowledge at his school was so poor that his essay was nominated for the theology essay prize. If course, this kind of comment draws a smug chortle from the fundy crowd.

He went from this straight to multiple arguments from authority. First, he named a British historian, Thomas Arnold of Oxford, who said (note: he’s very dead, d. 1842) that the resurrection is the best attested fact of history – a whopper if I ever heard one (see a long ago post about this here). Here we see an example of fundy-style “binary thinking” about God (all or nothing) – not only is the resurrection true, it’s the MOST true! Even though being most true is completely unnecessary for their claims and being most well documented is a completely unreasonable demand to make of something that was 2000 years ago. That it’s probably NOT true and it’s NOT EVEN SPARSELY historically documented is a big problem though.

Next followed more arguments from authority: Gumbel said that many people who make careers out of evaluating evidence, like scientists and lawyers, support Christianity. He then listed a fairly long and impressive list of scientists (plus mathematicians and philosophers of a more scientific bent), including Descartes (d. 1650), Newton (d. 1727), Kepler (d. 1630), Locke (d. 1704), Galileo (d. 1642), Copernicus (d. 1543), Faraday (d. 1864), Boyle (d. 1691), Mendel (d. 1884), Kelvin (d. 1907), Maxwell (d. 1879) and some guy named James Simpson (d. 1870). Problems with this: First, science is evidence-based, not authoritative. If you’re going to reference scientists, do them the honour of explaining why they believe something, rather than just that they did. Second, most of the scientists listed lived in the 16th through the early 19th centuries. This is a big problem when you consider that the bulk of them lived before Darwin and Natural Selection (published 1859), before Lyell (published 1830-3) and modern geology, and before an understanding of the universe outside our solar system (Hubble proved that there were other galaxies around 1925). In their days, Christianity was not questioned much and origins were deferred to Genesis because there was no scientific alternative available. Now, with the discoveries of modern cosmology, evolutionary biology, and physics, scientists today are overwhelmingly atheistic (only about 7% of members of the US National Academy of Sciences believe in something similar to the Christian God).


The third section talked about Christianity’s relevance. Or something like that. By this time, I was getting really tired and had started to zone out. Strangely, the impression I got was that his talk on relevance was kind of irrelevant.

The only thing I gleaned was yet another example of fundamentalist “binary thinking” – black or white, all or nothing, and superlatives to either side. Gumbel quoted CS Lewis who said that if Christianity is not true, it is of no importance, and if it is true, it is of ultimate importance. No middling importance. Well, that’s not quite true there, my dear deceased CS and my dear mentally deceased Nicky. If Chirstianity is true, then it certainly is of ultimate importance; however, I have zero faith in Christ but I think Christianity is somewhat important because of its cultural and historical relevance – for better or worse (usually worse) it affects my life. And what about Muslims? If they’re correct, then Christianity is partially true and therefore of some but not supreme relevance. Regardless, it's relevence is tied to its truthfulness, so there's still a ways to go there.

We (me, my wife, and her two friends) sat together at a table with one guy, there without his wife, who was at home with his kids. According to him, she was of admirably strong faith and had been for many years. He was there to, in essence, catch up. Nice guy. Already indoctrinated. I didn’t get a chance to interact with anyone else to hear their thoughts.

In summary, dinner was nice but unspectacular and the Alpha Course spectacularly managed to be boring, untrue, and irrelevant.

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04 October 2008

Alpha Course Primer

Before I get into the meat of what went on in the Alpha Course Tuesday night, I’m going to introduce what Alpha is and how it works for those of you not familiar with it (feel free to click on the “alpha course” tag at the bottom of this post to read my previous stuff feelings on it).

The Alpha Course is an introductory course into the basics of Christianity aimed at interested potential converts, new Christians, and Christians who haven’t really thought about their faith that much. Its aims are to reinforce the Gospel message and teach people how to be Christian in regards to what their faith means, how to pray, and other religious fluff. Since 1990, it has been run by Nicky Gumbel, a reverend in the Church of England. It’s a popular course that is taught in churches all over the world.

Through bribes of free dinner, it draws its participants in once a week. After eating, participants watch a video lecture (I’ll often call it a sermon; that’s basically what it is) by Gumbel about a particular introductory Christian topic. Afterwards, participants break into small groups of about a half-a-dozen to discuss the message in the sermon. From the website, the topics are:

• Is there more to life than this? (previously Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant? – which is the video we got.)
• Who is Jesus?
• Why did Jesus die?
• How can I be sure of my faith?
• Why and how should I read the Bible?
• Why and how should I pray?
• How does God guide us?
• How can I resist evil?
• Why and how should I tell others?
• Does God heal today?
• What about the church?
• Who is the Holy Spirit? [*]
• What does the Holy Spirit do? [*]
• How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit? [*]
• How can I make the most of the rest of my Life? [*]
* denotes topics discussed at a weekend retreat

Nicky Gumbel is an interesting person to watch and listen to. He looks kind of like a Wallace and Grommit version of Richard Gere, except Gumbel has a buck-toothed Napoleon Dynamite look to him. A bit annoying, but he actually comes across as a happy, friendly, “genuine” guy (genuine in quotations because, while he’s genuinely friendly and happy, you’ll see that a lot of what he says is anything but genuine).

As Theo Bromine noted in the previous post’s comments, reasons given to believe are factually superficial and highly emotional. The overriding theme in the introductory sermon was actually the “God-shaped hole in everyone’s hearts” (I guess Nicky doesn’t believe in content atheists). Other than the overwhelming “God’s love” stuff, there’s not much in the program to convince people who are investigating Christianity to actually accept it. Most of the program takes God and Jesus as a given, and instead focuses on prayer guidance and other such things you’d have to worry about assuming you’d just become a Christian.

Other early thoughts are that Alpha works frequently through name dropping and quotations that may or may not be taken out of context. Names dropped during the introductory sermon included: Freddy Mercury, CS Lewis, Robert Louis Stevenson, some British barrister which would be a lot more impressive if I lived in England (note: turns out his name is Frank Morison; he’s not important enough to have a wikipedia article), Leo Tolstoy, and a bunch of scientists you’ll see in the next post. Some of these guys weren’t even Christian, but they’ve been quoted as saying they had a void in their lives for whatever reason, so Gumbel just inserted God into that void on their behalves. Another key thing about all this name dropping: the vast majority of the famous people being name-dropped are long dead.

Another thing is that my Church Peeve #5 is alive and well (if you don’t remember, that’s Stretched Tie-ins to Pop Culture). He talked about football (soccer) quite a lot. He’s a bit more skilled than your average preacher at working these references in, but they are still pretty superfluous.

If you read my first post on going to Alpha, you’d remember that I was worried about two of my wife’s friends who had been bribed by food to attend. I was worried that their skepticism was insufficient and that they’d be won-over by Alpha. I’m not 100% sure yet, but it seems my fears were unfounded. They looked even less interested than I did. They did not crack one smile at any of the amusing stories Nicky Gumbel told. Afterwards, they said not one word to us about what we’d seen in the video. My general impression was that they were very unimpressed and will not being going back.

What about me? My wife wants me to go back, and I feel like there is some unfinished business because, as you’ll see in the next post, we didn’t get a chance to go into the small groups this week. Still, looking at the list of topics, I doubt I’ll be able to tolerate all the religious mumbo jumbo that’ll come fast and furious each week. I’m really not interested in how to pray or why I should be telling people about Christ. That said, I guess I’ll probably continue going as long as I can stand it just so I’ll have something to blog about.

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01 October 2008

Church Peeves: Part 6 - Bonus Good Stuff

Over the past couple of weeks, I've posted a series of 5 posts of inconsequential stuff about some churches/churchgoers that really bugs me.

So in fairness, here is a quick one-off post of 5 inconsequential things about church that are actually pretty decent:

1) Musicians
Depending on the church (the younger and bigger the better) you can find some pretty damn good musicians. Too bad the music they play sucks monkey balls.

2) Charity work
Yeah, they run a few food drives and the Christmas shoebox campaign, so that’s good. Unfortunately, most of the programs at my wife’s church are of the bible camp/missionary trip/self-help program variety rather than outright charitable causes. Still, at least some of the money they collect isn’t spent on new Powerpoint projectors and a sweet games room.

3) The handful of guys slouched over and sleeping in their chairs
They hide in the back. They prop their heads up. They slouch and sleep. They really don’t want to be there. Perhaps, like me, they are forced to be there by their wives. In these guys, I feel like I’ve found a few kindred spirits. I, for one, am appreciative of when the pastor calls on the congregation to bow their heads in prayer because then I can rest my eyes for a while. I believe these guys feel the same way, and I respect that.

4) Hot girls
My wife would kill me for mentioning it, but at many churches I’ve been to, there are a lot of good-looking young women. And, while they aren’t dressed slutty per se, they are definitely advertising themselves for something. Not that I’m looking. Of course not. [shifty eyes]

5) Standing up, sitting down
And Standing up, and sitting down, then standing up again, followed by sitting down. You get the picture. It’s awesome. No wait, I fucking hate it. I must have run out of positive things to talk about. Oh well, at least it’s good exercise. And at least we don’t go to a Catholic church. How do Catholics not have huge quad muscles?

So in summary, church isn’t all horrible. There are at least a couple of good things going on for the annoyed atheist. Do they make church bearable? Hell no.

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