November 25, 2009
Free will and the Jesus people
(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
In the manner of TV soap-opera introductions, we ended yesterday with my talking with three Jesus people, a middle-aged woman, a middle-aged man, and a younger man, who had just made the astounding claim that if god did something, anything, (like the mass murder by drowning of infants) it could not be evil by definition, even if that same act would be universally condemned if done by a human.
The middle-aged man and the young man then started to make a point about free will and original sin. You know, the story of how god created Adam and Eve to have an idyllic life in the perfect Garden of Eden. He also gave them free will but told them not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But of course, they did, and that was the original sin. For that one sinful act, god has inflicted suffering on all the animals (including humans) for all of time. Seems a bit excessive, no? God seems to be the sort who holds a grudge for a l-o-o-o-n-g time, worse than any gangland boss.
This theory of original sin and free will is a big deal for Jesus people. They think it explains everything although in reality combining free will with belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god creates insoluble logical contradictions. Religious people assert that God gave us free will, and the reason why there is sin and suffering is because people use their free will to do the wrong things. But they also say that we suffer because of Adam and Eve's original sin which has resulted in us being 'born in sin' (a truly weird idea) and thus cannot avoid sinning, which doesn't quite square with the idea of us sinning because we are abusing our free will.
This theory also does not explain the suffering caused by diseases and natural disasters unless you also assume that god is using those devices to punish the people who abuse their free will in order to sin. This is a tough argument to sell, especially in the case of sudden mass catastrophes like tsunamis and earthquakes that wipe out entire swathes of people, including infants who are hardly in a position to exercise their free will at all, let alone in malevolent ways.
The middle-aged guy created a hypothetical scenario by pointing to a man who was coming down the street. Suppose he suddenly decided to cut off my head. His point seemed to be that if the man did this, he would be using his free will for evil purposes and that was because of original sin.
But I decided to take that hypothetical in another direction. (Religious people can be easily led into logical contradictions because they think that they are being disloyal to god unless they assign every superlative power they can imagine to Big Daddy in the sky.)
If that guy beheaded me doesn't that meant that god wanted me to be beheaded? No.
But doesn't god know everything even before it happens? Yes.
So doesn't god know beforehand that this man plans to behead me? Yes.
Doesn't god have the power to stop him from beheading me? Yes.
So if god knows that I am going to be beheaded and has the power to stop it but does not do so, doesn't that mean that god wants me beheaded? No.
Why not? Because the murderer was using his free will for evil purposes because of original sin.
As you can see, religious people have a set cycle of arguments, and when logically cornered will simply hit the 'reset' button and start the cycle all over again, even if it makes no sense or has been refuted or even flatly contradicts what they said just moments before.
I must admit that I was having a lot of fun but unfortunately had to go for my class. But before I left, the man made his last pitch to save me from hell by listing all the sins that I need to avoid committing to save me from going to hell. Things like murder, stealing, lying, lust, …
Hold on there, I said, what's wrong with lust? Lust is great! You should try it. And with that last comment, I left.
It was a hilarious half-hour or so. Was I having fun at the Jesus people's expense by pointing out the absurdities that arise from their beliefs? Absolutely. I have said before, when I am talking about religion with people personally, I tend to be non-confrontational, gentle even. But when people stop me on the street to try and convert me by telling me that I am going to hell unless I worship their genocidal god who has these strange ideas about free will, then I think they have forfeited any right to gentle treatment because they have left the private sphere. They have signaled their readiness to take on the rough-and-tumble of public debate, and should not complain if their views are dissected.
The Jesus people's attempts to spread their vile message of self-loathing and fear must be combated vigorously. The only reason they have got away so far with spreading their silly message on public streets is because of the misguided 'respect for religion' trope that says that as long as people are talking about religion, the fact that what they are saying is utter claptrap should not be pointed out. So we have ignored them. We should instead take the chance to show them the consequences of their beliefs. It may not make them change their minds but it may make them less enthusiastic about spreading their message of fear and self-loathing to unwary and innocent people.
POST SCRIPT: Some Grey Bloke tries to understand free will and original sin