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


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Hi Mano,

I'm an undergraduate at Case. I believe I'm familiar with Beth's (the middle-aged woman) motivation for approaching or speaking with you recently. May I inquire briefly concerning the motivation for the nature of your responses, at least the ones you've included over the last few blog posts?

I have discerned several possibilities:
1. Small talk
2. Personal investigation of Christianity
3. A genuine concern for the future of rational inquiry/discourse in the public square (a favor to society)
4. A favor to Beth
5. Amusement

The skeptical commentary you've provided denies the probability that you were simply "making small talk." There is evidently a prior interest in operation during your discussion.

You've written previously, "So why do I do bother arguing at all? I am a firm believer that religious beliefs change slowly as a result of people trying and failing, on their own, to reconcile the contradictory beliefs they are forced to hold. So what I do is plant as many seeds of doubt as I can and hope that at least one will take root and sprout and undermine the whole religious edifice."

This seems to deny #2, at least as a primary motivation. You want to undermine her religious edifice. So maybe my question, in light of this, is best put, "Why is it worth you're time to undermine her religious edifice?"

Of the possibilities I came up with, there are three left:
3. A genuine concern for the future of rational inquiry/discourse in the public square (a favor to society)
4. A favor to Beth
5. Amusement

#3. In this case, I trust you could have done a much better job than it seems you did. You could have resisted the impulse to dismiss the afterlife, for example, with such a pejorative, superficial objection as the necessity of a heavenly sewage system. In so doing, you may engage the woman (who was probably somewhat intimidated at this point), but you fail to critically engage Christianity any longer.

Tim Keller has written, concerning public discourse on faith (of which even atheists have plenty), that critical engagement only happens when each side, believer and nonbeliever, has learned to represent the other's argument in it's strongest and most earnest forms. Otherwise, we deal only in strawmen (I can explain in a subsequent post why you and Beth were talking about a strawman for the afterlife).

I could go around telling the next generation of scientists that they should ditch science because one of the foundational principles of science, the Induction Principle (aka the Uniformity Principle), has no evidence to commend it. Indeed, there is no evidence for it, and I could point them to Bertrand Russell's article on the subject ( to prove it. However, philosophically speaking, this would be a confusion of assumptions and conclusions (or axioms and theorems in the homologous language of math). I believe few students in the sciences at Case rigorously understand the Induction Principle, so I resist that temptation to take advantage of their ignorance and stump them. It seems that, in some similar fashion, you were taking advantage of Beth by getting to her to accept a strawman for the afterlife. (Incidentally, I don't really think we should abandon science simply because the Induction Principle is without evidence).

#4. If so, did you take a minute to share with her the gospel of atheism - that she can be freed from her own "vile message of self-loathing and fear" - that salvation is found in skepticism alone?

#5. I've found amusement, usually, to come at the expense of really productive conversation about these matters. Example: I visited one of Case CFI's meetings in lieu of the Ray Comfort book handout, but I was disappointed to find that little more occurred than nervous and half-forced laughter in response to a polemic given by the comedian-atheist student leader who organized the meeting. They abandoned any real concern for inquiry when they became content to make a pinata of religion. If it had been an intellectually stimulating discussion about the book (I know they thought it was patently absurd, but did it really have no capacity to spark engaging discussion whatsoever?), or merely a forum to discuss grave misgivings about the dangers of such products of irrational religion, then I might have been engaged (I'm, of course, speaking on their terms here).

I really would like to hear the motivation for the nature of your responses to the woman, Mano.




You write above, "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."

I seriously doubt that Christians owe their street campaign to any "tolerance trope."
History (and the news) suggests that greater boldness among Christians for the gospel accompanies greater hostility toward the gospel.

Alright, this post became a lot longer than I anticipated. Time to join the family for Thanksgiving.

Posted by Benjamin Holvey on November 26, 2009 02:25 PM

Hi Ben,

Thanks for the message and the logical analysis of my possible motives.

Actually, you need not have taken the trouble since I have explicityly stated my motives here.

I am not sure why you think the problem of induction is a stumper. It is a concern of philosophers seeking to identify 'true knowledge' but it does not cause science any problems at all because we do not seek true knowledge in any absolute sense but are satisfied with provisionally true knowledge.

Furthermore, I don't know why, if you think it is such a problem for science, you don't point it out to fellow students. Science is not like religion in that it wants to hide its problems. It actually benefits from having its weaknesses probed. That is how deeper understandings arise and scientific revolutions occur. The 'problem' of induction is something we discuss freely in my courses.

I also do not see why you think I was not taking Beth's statements about her beliefs in their strongest form when I raised the issue of the heavenly sewage system. It was precisely because I took it seriously that I raised the issue. I was treating her statement the way that I would treat any scientific or at least empirical statement. I was following it to its logical conclusion to see where it leads. When people say that physical bodies exist up in the sky, that is an empirical statement that has many observable consequences.

What religious people actually want is to be able to make such statements and have the listener NOT take them seriously by just ignoring them and moving on. That way, they can make sweeping assertions about god and the afterlife, free from being asked to justify them or worrying about contradictions.

Finally, there is no 'gospel of atheism'. I shared with her all there is to share: that there is no credible evidence whatsoever for god, heaven, hell, or any form of afterlife, which is why is don't believe in any of these things. It is really very simple. And intellectually liberating.

Posted by Mano on November 28, 2009 11:02 PM


Please watch this video on You tube and wake up to reality!

Let us know what you think!

Mano, I am sure you will like this one...

Posted by Ray Foulkes on November 29, 2009 02:09 PM

I watched the video. The man was never, I repeat never, a Christian. He was a false convert. I can see how his 'reasoning' led him astray. It doesn't matter what you 'believe' (intellectual ascent), if you don't put your trust in the One True God - the God revealed in Scripture, you are an atheist. It is not belief that allows you to be born again, it is trust in Christ that He paid your sin debt. If you lied, you are a liar (Rev 21:8). If you stole anything, you are a thief. If you looked with lust, you are an adulterer (1Cor 6:9,10).
The man in the video said it doesn't make sense to him what Jesus did. That opinion is Biblical - "it is foolishness to them who are perishing (1Cor 1:18). The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1Cor 2:14). Once you know Him, not believe in Him, know Him, then He and His Word is revealed. You won' understand these things, if you are not born again, but they are true. There will be a Judgment Day for the unbeliever. God will not choose it for you, you will do the choosing. I pray all that read this, if they are not sure of their salvation, that they cry out to the One Creator of the universe, and ask Him to reveal Himself to you. Get a Bible out, read it every day, and obey what it says.
Satan casts his vote against you, God casts His vote for you, you cast the deciding vote.

Posted by Beth on December 2, 2009 11:01 AM

Hi Beth,

You say, "Get a Bible out, read it every day, and obey what it says." Since presumably you do that, I assume that you feel obliged to stone to death all the following people:

Spiritists or mediums (Leviticus 20:27)
Blasphemers (Leviticus 24:14)
Anyone who gathers wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)
Anyone who tries to convert you to another religion (Deuteronomy 13:6-10)
People who worship other gods (Deuteronomy 17:2-5)
Stubborn and rebellious children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Any woman who is found to not be a virgin when she gets married (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
Adulterers (Deuteronomy 22:22-24)

You may need to recruit help as that is an awful lot of people whom your god wants you to murder.

Posted by Mano on December 2, 2009 11:41 AM

Hi Beth,

I used to consider myself a Christian, but if losing your faith makes you a "false convert" then I guess you would say that I was also never "really" a christian. Is that something you really believe? It seems in a twisted way a little solipsistic to me.

Earlier you suggested that "hearing" God's voice is not like hearing an audible sound but similar to recalling someone's voice. This fits with what I was taught when I was practicing. I understand this to be an important to the whole idea of the Personal God. It did bother me that the "God voice" sensations are typically internal, although I was told to brush those apprehensions aside. Yet, aside from the more obvious observation that if something exists solely in your mind then it must be part of your mind, there is also this line that I couldn't stop thinking about:

Our minds are clearly equipped with the ability to simulate real events. This is what we do when we remember something - such as our mother's voice. Likewise, we can consciously or unconsciously simulate something new, which we call imagination. It's actually not even something we have direct control over most of the time.

When I was being taught to "hear God's voice", in retrospect I that I was really being coached to develop the ability to treat certain types of thoughts as somehow separate, and to give those thoughts a name. As the process developed I also learn to give those thoughts their own voice. These thoughts can come unbidden, as is the nature of consciousness.

I am glad that I chose to give up on religion because I think that the kind of thinking I described above was pathological. You can say that my experiences aren't REALLY the same as yours, and that I never TRULY accepted Jesus, and so on. In that case I just THOUGHT I did. Doesn't that seem dishonest to you?

I really hope you give what I am saying some thought, because you do yourself a disservice to not apply the same skepticism to your own beliefs that you apply to others.


Posted by Jared on December 2, 2009 12:08 PM

You make the same mistake many others do when they think all 613 laws apply today.
You maybe better just stick to the New Testament. It will be safer for you.
Jeus came to fulfill the Law so that when one repents and trusts in His sacrifice at the cross, one is considered born again and righteous before God.
Another comment on another post was that you said that I was bringing up hell again. I did because you did. Remember when you asked about 'Hades' and 'Gehenna'?
Some things are true whether you believe them or not.
Creation and your conscience are the two evidences of God's existence. No painter - no painting. No builder - no building. No Creator - no creation.
Your conscience tells you when you do wrong. God has given you light so you will be without excuse on Judgment Day, Mano. My prayer is that you see the light before it is too late.

Posted by on December 7, 2009 05:24 PM

Ben –
I might think you hit on a truth - Mano was on a “personal investigation of Christianity,” but would not admit it.
Also, I agree with Mano that there is no ‘gospel’ of atheism. Gospel means “good news.” What kind of good news is it that you don’t believe in God and will spend all of eternity in eternal torment? Atheists don’t believe in God, but He doesn’t believe in you. You can’t make the statement that there is no God. You would have to be omniscient.
I do not have a “vile message of self-loathing and fear.” It is quite the opposite. I think of myself enough to seek God and find eternal life. I have no fear because I know where I will spend my eternity. It won’t be in eternal torment. I hope/pray the same for you.
Why are you so afraid of someone else’s opinion? Is your beliefs so fragile that they can’t handle another thought/belief?

Posted by Beth on December 7, 2009 05:47 PM


On what basis do you decide which of the 613 laws to follow and which to ignore? After all you were the one who said that I should "Get a Bible out, read it every day, and obey what it says" without listing any exceptions.

I do not recall asking about Hades or Gehenna at all. In fact I almost never use those words, preferring the simple 'hell'.

The argument that every creation requires a creator suffers from the weakness that you then have to explain who in turn created your creator of the universe.

The existence of a conscience is not an argument for god because that would imply that everyone would have the same conscience and agree on what is right and what is wrong. While we might agree on some things, there is nowhere near universality on this issue, even among Christians.

I am not on a personal investigation of Christianity but I am curious about what makes believers tick.

Have you not noticed how you keep talking about hell? Your response to Ben, with the repeated use of the phrase 'eternal torment', seems to indicate that you are truly terrified of hell and are desperately hoping that that Jesus will save you if you say the "right" words and think the "right" thoughts. I suspect that you will not even allow yourself to contemplate the possibility that Jesus, if he ever lived at all, was not the son of god and is now dead, because of the fear that such an impious thought will send you straight to hell.

Posted by Mano on December 7, 2009 06:21 PM