Post by Ed Clint
There are many arguments from history’s great philosophers, orators and atheists which semantically dismantle religious arguments. One need only google Hume, Ingersoll, or Hitchens to reach trenchant analyses of the structural flaws in theistic ideation. As much as I enjoy their sumptuous intellectual bounty, I find the most powerful and easiest objections to Christianity are a simple matter of accepting all of the premises, and imagining what the immediate consequences and implications are. Truly faulty ideas do not need to be hammered to bits: they fall apart under the weight of their own flaws. Here are just five deicidal notions one is required to accept, if they take the Christian at their word.
Terms of engagement: I am well aware there are over 30,000 sects of Christianity, each with their own God a la carte theology. For the sake of readability and brevity, I will refer to stereotypically American Christian beliefs that do not necessarily apply to each and every Christian in the world. Conversely, some of these also apply well to other religions but for simplicity I will refer only to JC and company.
5. Free will would be a disaster for Christian morality
We tend to think of free will by comparison to what it isn’t. Someone holding a gun to your head and forcing you to do anything is coercion, and not free. This common example is problematic, because the threat of hell has the seeming of a spiritual gun to the head, but let’s put that aside for the moment. If there were a rope tied around your wrist that forced it to move about, marionette-style, this would also not be a result of your free will. This is the case because something external to you exerted an influence which resulted in behavior (in this case, your arm moving about). The effect of the rope might be called deterministic because there is a simple physical relationship between a pull of the rope and the response, the movement of your limb. This simple observation is a very big problem.
Psychologically, all human behavior is deterministic. Some causes of human behavior are internal, but this hardly matters since neurons are tiny, highly deterministic machines themselves and our brains are a product of genes and environment (environmental determinants). In all human societies, there are rules, ethos and policies which are designed to exploit the highly determinant nature of human behavior. For example, all states have seatbelt laws. If you tell people they must buckle up or they might be fined (and that it is safer for them), they respond by buckling up. To be clear, this does not mean 100% of the people do it 100% of the time. The effect is probabilistic and any one individual’s behavior is the result of a calculus of hundreds of factors- but each of those is also a behavioral determinant. The important part is X * P -> Y where X is an environmental influence (seatbelt law) multiplied by some statistical probability which describes the likelihood any one person responds with Y, a direct behavioral consequence of X.
Christians ostensibly care about free will because they believe it allows for morality, the choice to act in accordance with Jesus-y mandate. We can now see that morality depends on free will, strictly speaking, not existing. To acquire a moral behavior or belief, say from a Jesus parable or Old Testament commandment, we need X * P -> Y. We need X, the parable, to increase the likelihood of Y, the “moral” belief or behavior. We can see, too, that the presence or absence of a soul is irrelevant to the consideration. Whether we call the machine for which the function X *P -> Y applies a brain, a mind, or a soul changes nothing about the conclusions.
What if X * P -> Y is wrong? What if behavior Y doesn’t follow from X? Isn’t there free will then? Yes, however, there is no morality, nor is there any capacity to learn at all. Sage guidance such as the words of Jesus would then have no influence whatsoever, making preaching the good word a futile exercise. Preaching and moralizing only makes sense if you think it can change people’s beliefs and behaviors, which can only happen if the will is not free.
4. The soul isn’t real
Most Christians would agree the soul is our essence, a repository of our identity, character, memories, feelings, and other mental bric-a-brac. It also seems to be the source of our moral worth (a ball of cells destined to form a person have it, but a ball of cells destined to form a tumor do not) and some sort of spiritual antenna that channels important but garbled communiqués from Jesus and pals.
The first problem is that our character, memories, feelings, personality, morality, etc.., are all known to be the work of the brain. We know this because each part of us can be affected or destroyed by drugs, traumatic injury and stroke. Even identity, the “self”, which seems as abstract and ethereal as it gets, can literally be cut in half with a scalpel. Experiments have shown that when the corpus callosum, the bundle of neurons connecting the right and left brain hemispheres, is severed, the result is a person with two minds which independently see, hear, and think without awareness of the other.
Stroke-related brain injury has been known to change a person’s personality and tastes. The soul seems less magical, knowing it can be so easily modified by a tumor or a blood clot. If the soul or pieces of it can’t survive a blood clot, why should we believe it survives death, when the entire brain breaks down? Moreover, understanding of neuronal systems that accomplish specific kinds of human cognition is improving every day. This ultimately forces us to accept that if there is a soul, it doesn’t seem to do anything.
But wait, maybe the soul is just a vehicle. Maybe it takes a brain “snapshot” before death so that “we” survive death. This doesn’t help much, as it would still mean for most of our lives our “essence” remains the brain: grey and white goop, not metaphysical magic. Still, let’s say that is how it works. The brain is made of matter, a physical cluster of atoms in molecules. The soul is said to be immaterial, but if the brain is material, how can an immaterial soul interact with it? Only matter (and conventional types of energy) can interact with matter. What’s more, if the soul somehow can interact with matter, then it can interact with matter we could attach a detector to, making the soul detectable in theory, and also making the soul material, not immaterial.
Thus, if Christians are correct about the properties of the soul, then it is detectable, irrelevant, or non-existent. In any of those cases, the Christian soul is not real.
3. Heaven is hell
For a book that covers such important topics as what to do when you find a bird’s nest, the Bible has little to say about the place where Jesus and God live and all “good” people will spend eternity. Scripture about heaven is varied, but always rather childish. Revelations (4:8-11), for example, describes God’s throne room thusly:
Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
“‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.”
This account would sound about right, were it penned by a seven year old who believed an almighty creator of the universe would have grace constantly announced. Indeed, only such a child could fail to immediately realize repeating a simple statement over and over for billions of years might be less than perfect.
Luckily, most Christians ignore these embarrassing accounts and instead conceive of heaven as the company of Jesus and being free of death, disease, hunger, pain and so on. This sounds pretty good, and is even consistent with some of the scripture- but only if you never think about it too hard. I wrote a bit of satire about a fictional George Carlin arriving in heaven (due to clerical error) and his ensuing observations:
I miss scratching an itch, a really good one that was just driving you crazy, in the middle of your back, and then you bite it just right with your fingernail! And I remember this time I gave a homeless guy my sandwich, that felt good, the way his eyes softened and seemed to say, “Is there beer too?” …And what about rooting for the little guy, the baseball team that wasn’t quite as good but tried twice as hard because they wanted it so bad? Wasn’t it great if they won, and still pretty great even if they lost? There’s no competition here, everyone already won their game eons ago.
There are at least two basic problems that muck up a perfectly good childish fantasy of the afterlife: human nature, and the polarity of joy.
People have an intrinsic need to strive, grow, and create. We learn, hone our skills, and test our mettle against others while taking great joy in all of it. As a race, and as individuals, we usually succeed at this to some degree. Imagine what it was like for the first women to vote, the first homosexuals to marry, or recall the feelings of pride and hope when our country elected its first black President. There is an inimitable pleasure in knowing that we can make our world a little better, albeit slowly, over time. Similarly, as we age we tend to get wiser and less rash. We learn to treat people better. Even when we stumble, we know we can learn from it. We take pride in our ability to grow. None of this can happen, in heaven. Heaven and its residents are perfect. There is nothing to strive for, no goals on the horizon, no personal fulfillment to seek. Things will remain as they are, for a zillion years.
What if you’re a comedian? An artist? What if you live to create jokes or vibrant-hued celebrations of the human form? That won’t fly in heaven, because your works could offend the sensibilities of others. Being offended can’t happen in heaven, so either you’re not allowed to create or else you’re incapable of being offended, which is another way of saying you’re intellectually and artistically dead. How could either of these be regarded as perfect or even desirable?
Polarity of joys
The problem with not having hunger or thirst is that those allow us to enjoy chocolate ice cream, a perfectly-seared steak, or ice water after a vigorous jog. In heaven you could never enjoy a hot bath at the end of a stressful day because there won’t be stressful days. You could never again feel the utter pleasure relaxing in a warm bed after working your buns off all day. You will never have a feeling of success by triumphing over adversity, because there won’t be adversity.
There is no light without the darkness, no pleasure without some discomforts and pains, and no meaning without challenge. Imagine, too, the burden of eternity. The blandness of heaven, devoid almost anything humans value, goes on and on and on. Unchanging.. day in, day out.. for billions and billions of years. The Christian’s idea of heaven is a nightmare beyond reckoning, inescapable even by death.
Here a Christian might object that when you go to heaven you will simply be happy and fulfilled, because you’re hangin’ with Jesus, you will not have the needs or wants you did on earth. In such a case, you may be truly happy forever- you just wouldn’t be human any more. The human part of you would have to be destroyed first. Also, if perpetual bliss without human meaning, challenge, or growth appeals to you, you might consider morphine addiction.
2. Prayer is pointless
This is probably obvious to most readers, but it bears mention on a list such as this and I will answer the common Christian reply. Ambrose Bierce defined “pray” in his text The Devil’s Dictionary as “To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.” Christians pray, particularly in times of desperation, for things they want or need. “You’ll be in our prayers” one Christian says to another, who is ill. But why, exactly? Christians know God, as almighty creator of the universe, has a Master Plan. The Master Plan includes all events that will ever happen, because Christian God is omniscient. The Master Plan even explains natural evil, like children being crushed under rubble during earthquakes- it’s all part of the plan. Those babies had to die, for the greater good of the Plan. Prayer is, then, a request to alter the plan. What would be left of God’s grand design, though, if every jackass (or even a small faction of them) who asked for something got it? It would be total chaos.
Here, some Christians object that prayer is, in fact, not for asking for favors, but instead merely a means of communing with the sky father. See, Christians have a relationship with Jesus. They’re practically Facebook official. Prayer is just texting your buddy Jesus. He never texts back, but it’s cool, he’s a rock star. This sounds alright, so long as you don’t think any further. For example, you should not ask, why do people ever talk to each other?
Why people (or any two sentient entities) communicate
Humans are social beings. Relationships with others are important for obvious reasons. Let’s consider companionate love:
To become friends with someone you communicate with them because you need them to know information in your mind that they can’t otherwise know— who you are, what you like and don’t like, what you think about them and the things they are doing and saying, and logistical things like “let’s catch a beer later”. You listen to the other person because you need the same information. Even after two people have become close friends, they still need to communicate to express their emotional state and to respond to things happening moment to moment. This is what creates and allows friendships. None of this makes any sense if God is a party.
God doesn’t need to hear you blather on about what you want or like or don’t. First, he already knows. Second, he doesn’t really care, because he is God. I am not asserting God is indifferent to you, I am pointing out the difference between a human listening to you and a God. A human listening to you really cares what you might say, because he or she might want or need to respond, particularly if you said FIRE! or Will you marry me? But God already has his Master Plan, and in any case, never responds to the pray-maker. He can’t be bothered to talk back. It could even be much worse than the Christian imagines it. Since God already knows every word of what every human will ever say, human dialog is, for God, like a song you’ve heard on the radio a thousand times and are sick to death of. God is listening to a tired old song, perhaps a billion at once, every second of every day. Imagine how awful that must be; even if you have a God’s patience, there is nothing about that that resembles a “relationship” or “communion”.
Social communication only really happens when information travels from one mind to another. Otherwise, it’s just pointless noise, exactly the same as when you’re waiting to get picked up at the airport and you hear “the white zone is for loading and unloading only…” for the 10th time. There is information, a sender, and a listener- you, but nothing has been communicated. Imagine if you spoke to your own friend in that fashion, repeating a phrase “I like afternoon naps”. Over and over and over. This is what it must be like for an omniscient God when a human says anything to him because God already knows every word, by heart. At least your friend might tell you to shut up. At least that’s a response. People respond. God can’t be bothered to treat you like a person. There is no communication; there is no relationship; and there is utterly no point to prayer, even if you accept all the basic Christian premises.
1. Jesus is a miserable failure
Jesus was, according to every devout Christian I know, sent to save mankind from sin. Jesus is Mentos from heaven. You have spiritual bad breath (congenitally, thanks to Adam & Eve), but Jesus, the moral Freshmaker, will make it alright via torture, mutilation and temporary death, then you’ll smile and wink knowingly. It only works if you explicitly accept him on your spiritual friends list, though, according to at least 5 different passages: John 6:40, 11:25, 14:6; Acts 26:18; and Romans 10:13.
The problem with this is that most humans who have ever lived were not Christians. Many were born before Jesus existed- but just 47 billion or so (counting from 50,000 B.C.E source). Read that again: 47 billion people went to hell on account of bad luck alone. Some Christians absolve the pre-Jesus people saying they do go to heaven; If so why did Jesus come at all? His coming then means people could, for the first time, be condemned to hell! Thanks, Jesus. Even today, just 33% of the 7 billion people on Earth are Christians, in spite of centuries of sword-wielding Jesuits, imperialist expansion, and worstly, Mormon missionaries. Assuming each and every one of those 2-ish billion people has done whatever it is God wants them to do to get their backstage pass to the Clouds, it’s still a pretty sad batting average for Jesus, God’s kid. If God’s plan for Jesus was to save mankind, then Jesus is a miserable failure. You only have to believe this though, if you’re a Christian.