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Finished The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith (2/5 for presentation, 4/5 for the main point).

There is a fine balance between supporting your point and belaboring it. In this book, Smith makes a very important case against what he calls biblicism, but nearly everything you need to get the core point can be found in the introduction and the conclusion. The rest of the book expands the points made there, but not in a way that enlightens. But the core insight of the book is one of those valuable "ah hah!" ideas that is worth pondering for anyone who cares about how the Bible is read[1].

Rather than try to summarize the book, I'll link to a couple other reviews[2][3]. This quote from [3] nicely summarizes Smith's key point:

"What is biblicism? Concisely, it is a theory (often unstated) about the nature, purpose, and function of the bible. Its ruling idea is that the meaning of the bible is clear and transparent to open-minded readers. The implication of this idea is that when people sit down to read the bible a broad consensus can be reached about the will of God for any number of issues or topics, from gender roles to the plan of salvation to social ethics to the end times to church organization.

"The first part of Smith's book is engaged in blowing up this idea. Empirically speaking, the bible does not produce consensus. Empirically speaking, what we find, to use Smith's phrase, is 'pervasive interpretive pluralism.' Even among biblicists themselves consensus cannot be reached. For example, Smith points us to books like the Four Views series from InterVarsity Press. Surf over to that link and look at the titles of the series. Four (and sometimes five!) views on just about every topic in Christianity. What does that say when conservative evangelicals, who hold that the bible is both clear and authoritative, can't agree?

"Thus, Smith concludes that biblicism is a wrongheaded way of approaching the bible. Biblicism doesn't deliver on what it promises: consensus and clarity about 'the will of God.'"

[1] I can hear you saying, "Wait Erika, aren't you an atheist?" Yes I am, but I still care about how the Bible is read. First, how believers read the Bible impacts society and at large. Second, it's hard not to be interested in something when you spent a year intimately engaged with it (
[2] see the rest of the series about that book on Rachel's blog
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Finished A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Amstrong. Armstrong excels in the art of story telling. In this book, she weaves the threads of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic history into a coherent story.

I learned from this book that all three of these faiths influenced each other throughout their development, and all three have constantly changing ideas of God. Each tradition struggles with the idea of a single, ultimate God. Certain questions come up again and again, changing the way that God and the tenants of the faith are understood.

Is God universal or linked to a particular group? Is God only good or does he also encompass evil? Is God a subjective concept or an external reality? Each religious tradition has periodically struggled with these questions. As the world changed, new issues became important and the answers to those questions changed. Not surprisingly, this makes for a lot of information, but Armstrong handles it nicely.

This book is not completely without bias. She does not manipulate history to conform to her beliefs (well, as far as I know), but she does make it clear which positions she has greater sympathy for. Partially because of her deep knowledge of many different religious traditions, she tends to be sympathetic towards ideas which point to a universal, transcendent deity and less sympathetic towards ideas which encourage division and exclusivity.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
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Revisiting Stephen Roberts's statement: “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

Why put it in this admittedly imprecise manner? Because otherwise I would have to say, "If you accept that the existence of multiple viable creedal extensions to basic theistic belief provides a probabilistic defeater for the idea that such beliefs are both properly basic and warranted, then you will understand why I consider your personal experiences as insufficient for establishing your creedal extension as a warranted, properly basic belief."

And that's just a mouthful.

And if you want to actually understand what that means, John Danaher just did a great guest series of posts on Plantinga's idea of warranted Christian belief over at Common Sense Atheism.

  1. Key concepts

  2. Plantinga's model

  3. A sketch of Baldwin's probabalistic defeat

  4. Addressing objections to the defeater

ETA: A fundamental thing that certain people always seem to miss when I talk about this quote. This quote does not say that when you understand all the other possible gods, you will dismiss yours. It says that when you understand the former, you will understand why I dismiss your god(s). This quote does not attempt to convince anyone that their God does not exist. It attempts to get people to think about the fact that their religion is only one of many on a playing field. A playing field where they dismiss most other gods and where many (atheist and non-atheist) dismiss their god.

This quote and my expansion thereof are not trying to talk about what is or is not true. It is talking about reasons for disbelief. It is not saying, "you have no legitimate reason for your belief." It is saying that, "I have no legitimate reason to accept your belief." It is pointing out that your belief, from my point of view, is no more obvious than any of these other beliefs.

ETA2: To be more precise, one could say that once you understand that you reject other gods because you have been presented with no external or internal reason to accept them, you will realize that I reject your god because I have been presented with no external or internal reason to accept it. Now, this may include wildly differing reasons; my reason for rejecting some external argument for some god may different from your reasons for rejecting that same argument for that god, but, ultimately, we both reject that god because we reject the arguments for that god and have no internal arguments for that god.

When spelled out like this, it seems like this is so obvious that it cannot be what the original meant, but then you remember all of the people who say that atheists really believe in God, they just ignore what their heart says or who say that the proof for their god is so obvious in the world that one would have to willfully ignore it. No. In reality, the atheist sees your god as yet another concept that they personally have no internal or external reason to believe.
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I do not want to cross link my Bible blog too often, but I do feel like Feb 8th post deserves to be shared. God's fashion sense on display!
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Finished Why I became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity by John Loftus. An interesting book that tends toward high density, abstract arguments. Norman Geisler, author of A General Introduction to the Bible and The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics says it "is a thoughtful and intellectually challenging work, presenting arguments that every honest theist and Christian should face." "Thoughtful and intellectually challenging" are simultaneously this book's strengths and the things that make it sometimes rather dull.

When reading this book, one should not forget that this is an explanation of why the author rejected Christianity. The book contains philosophical arguments, but they are the ones that convinced the author that Christianity is false. It is not meant to be an exhaustive catalog. The arguments generally focus on Christianity. Some of them may generalize to other religions, but arguing the implausibility of other religions was not the author's main goal.

In my opinion, the most interesting part of the book is the "Outsider Test For Faith". In general, what is convincing to an insider is not necessarily convincing to an outsider. Many arguments that seem flawless from the insider are laughable from the outside. This is true for any division of the world into "inside" and "outside".

The outsider test for faith asks you to "[t]est your beliefs as if you were an outsider to your faith." How would an outsider's view be different from an insider's view? First, it would take into account that there are many religions in the world, all of them faithfully believed. Does the sincere belief of those believers convince you that the religion they follow is true? If not, than the mere existence of your own faith cannot be expected to make a convincing argument. In an similar vein, an outsider viewpoint would take into account that for the vast majority of believers, the religion they follow is determined by their cultural, temporal, and geographic context.

Another feature of the outsider's viewpoint is that purely internal evidence is not convincing. For example, if one claims, without other arguments, that the Bible is true because it is authenticated by the Holy Spirit and that the feeling that you call the Holy Spirit is true and trustworthy because the Bible says it is, your claim will not pass the outsider test. Similarly, if you say that one should give their life over to Jesus because he is the son of God who died for our sins (according to the Bible), your claim also does not pass the outsider test. In both of these cases, the statement has nothing to stand on if one does not already accept the premises that would make them an insider.

The outsider test may sound like a harsh stance to take, but it is the stance you take toward every religion where you are an outsider. If you follow a certain faith, you are just applying the same standards to your own beliefs that you are applying to the beliefs of others.

Of course, no one can truly take on an outsider's perspective. Human beings are almost completely incapable of completely abandoning their own beliefs. Even so, the exercise can still lead to insights. And even if you are not willing to try the outsider's test for faith, acknowledging the difference between an insider's perspective and an outsider's perspective can, hopefully, help you understand why something that is so convincing to you is completely unconvincing to someone else.
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I have a new project! I'm doing that one year Bible thing again because I forgot to take notes when I did it a couple year ago. Since I am taking notes, I figured I might as well blog them. (Note that once I am back at work, I can pretty much guarantee that the notes will not be as detailed as they were today and yesterday.)
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Once again I encountered an attitude that always surprises me. I was accused of attacking the Bible when I said that it contains events that, from my external point of view, can only be described as deity approved horrors. Yet this same individual did not consider it an attack when they said that someday I would be forced to kneel before God and would go to hell or when they said that loving, committed, same-sex relationships are an affront on morality.

To some degree, all humans fall prey to the bias of their own perspective. Both of us considered ourselves to be making statements which, from our own point of view, fall under the category of painful truths, not attacks.

Yet I have found that some Christians (not all) quickly jump to the conclusion that atheists are on the offensive when they say anything less than complimentary about religion. They assume that a very specific comment has a very general meaning. Often, these same Christians then go on to say things as bad or worse than what was said to them, but they do not see themselves as attacking and claim innocence if their statements are pointed out.

An much smaller subset turns this into a persecution complex. These are people who really believe there is a war on Christmas. They truly believe that they are like the early Christians and society is trying to crush them out of existence. When you point out that Christians are the vast majority in this nation, they claim that most of those people are not "real Christians" (I always imagine that followed by a trademark symbol). Fortunately, these people, despite their prevalence on the internet, are a small group.

In the end, this biased perspective no longer makes me feel angry or hurt or insulted. But it has become tiresome.

ETA: Apparently, 24% of Evangelical Christians (the single largest religious group in the US) feel like they are part of a religious minority.
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Finished The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America's Founders edited by Forrest Church. This short book contains extracts of revolutionary era writings about the separation of church and and state. Favorites such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington make an appearance as do less well known writers such as Isaac Backus and Oliver Ellsworth.

"Separation of church and state" is a phrase that is bandied around without knowledge of its historical origins. First, as I hope we all know, the phrase itself does not appear in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Instead, it first appeared in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson (Ch. 14 in the book):
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and state.
One common disagreement in modern discussion is whether we should aim for freedom from religion or freedom for religion. Both threads find expression in the writings in the book. As the author says in the introduction:
As was true of the broader American struggle for freedom, the revolution that led to religious liberty was powered by two very different engines: one driven by eighteenth-century Enlightenment values, the other guided by Christian imperatives that grew out of the Great Awakening, a spiritual movement that spread like wildfire across the American colonies throughout the middle decades of that same century. The former movement, emphasizing freedom of conscience as both a political and a philosophical virtue, stressed freedom from the dictates of organized religion. The later, stemming from a devout reading of the gospels (especially their proclamation of spiritual liberty from bondage to the world's principalities and powers), demanded freedom for religion.
I feel that freedom of conscience suffers from poor health in modern America. Not just with respect to religion but, in general, Americans are quick to judge someone based only on what they believe, not on their actions. I see this, of course, in debates about religion and its proper role in a secular society. But I also see it more widely. I see it in the fact that some said Larry Summers should not be an economic advisor to the President because of what he had said about gender at Harvard (how is that relevant to being an economic advisor?). I see this in the very current debates about race in this country where we are obsessed with whether or not people think racist thoughts, not whether or not they act on them.

I do not want to imply that people's opinions are irrelevant, but we have come to a place in American society where beliefs are often considered more important than actions. That is sad and destructive. Reading books like this remind us about the fundamental debates that define our country have, at their core, something much deeper than superficial displays of religiousity.
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An article questions what President Obama means when he says that America is not just a Christian nation. The author seems unable to come up with a reasonable interpretation of what such a phrase could mean. Well, here are a couple of options that pop in to my head that the author did not consider:

  • The US does not base its laws on the Bible or on what any particular church says. Laws and the moral values inspired by them must have a legal justification (sometimes in addition to and sometimes in contradiction of religions proclamations).

  • The US does not have its government exclusively controlled by Christians.

People who get in a tizzy over the phrase "the US is not only a Christian nation" need to realize that this does not mean that Christianity is going to be outlawed. It does not mean that Christians are going to be ignored or marginalized. It does not mean that moral laws stated in the Bible are going to be abandoned (And FYI, neither Christianity nor any other religion has an exclusive hold on moral values.). It means that Christians do not get special privilege. Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and maybe even some day atheists get to voice their concerns and get to participate equally as citizens and as officials.
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"All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do.". We can respect those people with differing religious beliefs, but respect does not mean turning a blind eye to abuses justified by religion.
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Daylight Atheism has a post refuting points that a Christian apologist "thinks would be the most effective at planting seeds of faith in an atheist's mind". Adam does a fine point of explaining why none of those points are persuasive (the comment have some good additions).

What I want to call out is a bit at the end of the post.
For me, when viewing all Strobel's questions, what stands out about them is their ordinariness. I concur with Greta Christina that these arguments, far from being anything new or unusual, are no different - and no more difficult to defeat - than those of the run-of-the-mill amateur apologists that most atheists encounter on a routine basis.
This is why I, like many other atheists, cannot be bothered to take a more in depth look at Christianity. The fare from the best apologists is no better than that from the mediocre apologists, and we have heard it and dismissed it man times before. Apologists are useful; they present a coherent belief system to believers. But the apologists who go from thinking they present a reasonable interpretation of some facts to thinking they present the only reasonable interpretation of those facts are overestimating their own ability.
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Having been hit before with the accusation that atheists only have negative ideas to add to the discourses of philosophy and moral theory, I was happy to chance upon an article which explains the problems with that claim better than I ever could.

The kernel of the response is this:
The problem is that they seem to expect to find people who identify themselves as "Atheist Philosophers" when in fact they should be looking for thinkers who happen not to believe in God. It may surprise them to learn, despite the Dawkins and Harrises of the world, that many atheists wake up in the morning without deciding how they can disprove God's existence today. Many people who don't believe in God have spent alot of time thinking about how to life a satisfying and proper life.

To put it another way: Just as religion is not an infatuation with God, atheism is not an infatuation with Nothing. The long and significant history of non-theistic philosophy and moral theory is full of the very positive arguments and metaphysical justifications your readers say they want.

Bonus! Huh, I never thought about that before. Streetcars don't actually need to run on top of ugly concrete.
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On the comment thread of my earlier post [ profile] includedmiddle claimed that for me to say that whole-Bible interpretation requires tricks to get a coherent (or semi-coherent) whole implied that I must be trying to interpret the Bible in an overly literal manner. However, I mean something far more basic than that.

When I read the Bible last year, I was struck by how much of it is full of violence and hatred (the author of Daylight Atheism has wrote it up much more throughly than I could here and here). The violence is more physical and explicit in the Old Testament, but it exists in the New Testament too. When you get down to it, in quantity, if not in some subjective measure of importance the Bible contains more bad than good. (I would contend it contains more boring than either of those, but that is likely because those parts just felt longer.)

I am not trying to be flippant here (well, except for the previous parenthetical comment). I understand that the Bible is not supposed to be an easy book to understand. I understand that every specific objections in the articles I linked has some interpretation that makes it all okay. I understand that I, as an atheist, am not visited by the Holy Spirit or the Grace of God or whatever is invoked by people who claim to understand the all or part Bible. I understand that Christians struggle with understanding it because it is a difficult book. But from a 10,000 foot level the Bible has the obvious problem that the good is like jewels scattered in a dung covered field, and it seems like this problem is completely ignored by those who believe it to be the word of God.
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I saw a great statement on an otherwise less than enlightening Amazon discussion on religion:
If religion was true then the more we studied it the more its truth should shine out, instead the experience of many people is that the more they study it the less sense it makes.
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Apparently, Rick Warren would never vote for an atheist. That's fine; I would never vote for him either. However, I do take issue with the reason why he would never vote for an atheist.

Warren subscribes to the commonly held myth that because atheists do not believe in God, we believe that we, as individuals, are completely self-sufficient. He believes, or at least implies, that because atheists do not believe in God, they are not participants in the web of community and dependence that links all human beings.

The error here is a common one. In so far as I can tell, people like Warren think, "Because I believe in God, I know I cannot make it all by myself. Atheists do not believe in God, so they must believe that they can make it on their own." The mistake here is obvious. From "A implies B" and "not A" you cannot conclude "not B".

Many, I will even say most, atheists do not believe people are fully self-sufficient. We acknowledge that we depend socially, emotionally, and physically on other people. What those who believe this stereotype of atheists do not understand is that atheists, like Christians, believe we are not fully self-sufficient, but we believe this for a different reason..

What many religious people fail to recognize, refuse to recognize, are perhaps afraid to recognize, is that atheists generally have the same moral values as religious people (and have opinions that are just as diverse). Atheists are not some evil, amoral other. We are people who look at the world and see problems and suffering and want them to stop just as much as anyone else does.

To make any progress in understanding each other, we must all remember that different people can hold the same belief for different reasons, and having a different reason for holding a belief does not invalidate the sincerity of that belief.
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The "Debunking Christianity" blog has the rather long story of one Christian's deconversion. The author was trying to discover his fundamental beliefs.
I took a "first principles" approach, as a means for really doing the thinking and reasoning that would lay the foundation for decades to come as a faithful, enthusiastic and effective Catholic. For the first time ever, I think, I purposely put everything I believed on the table for review, and went to some length in making careful notes and comments in an MS Word Document and an Excel spreadsheet to keep things organized. My faith in God wasn't in question, but I "cleared the decks" as a kind of "provisional atheist", that I might clearly identify the grounding and basis for "non-negotiables" of my belief. ... More than anything, I wanted clarity about these issues that would stick.
For Touchstone, this process resulted in his becoming an atheist. However, I am less interested in the result than the process.

I challenge each of you (and myself) to figure out what your fundamental beliefs are. Take the time to write down what you believe (noting contradictions). Figure out why you believe each belief; a useful way to really get at the meat of why you believe something is to honestly consider all of the reasons against holding that belief. Finally, honestly assess which beliefs are fundamental, which are just opinions, which fall between the two, and which beliefs are incompatible with your fundamental beliefs.
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I am going to start using a new word. I am, until I find yet another word I like better, a humanist.

I do not like the word "atheist". It implies that the key point of my belief system is that I do not believe is any sort of God. Really, that is rather incidental. The invisible pink unicorn analogy is apt here. I (like most of you), do not believe in invisible pink unicorns (they are purple). However, I do not define my belief system as aipuism. The lack of existence of ipus or Gods really is only relevant when I am dealing with people who believe otherwise.

"Agnostic" is a technically correct term. I do not believe that we can prove or disprove the existence of something as redefinable as God. On the other hand, "agnostic" implies that I am undecided as to whether or not there is a God. While I admit to the possibility that there may be a God just as I admit to the possibility that our most established scientific theories may be incorrect, I do not stay up at night worrying about it. I leave myself open to the possibility that my opinion on what is true may change in the future and continue to accept the best explanation of our observations as truth.

All that said, I still think "humanist" is a stupid sounding word.
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So, as I was waiting for something at work, I clicked the link above my gmail. It led to this site (who would not be tempted by a link on "Christian logic"?). The article describes how logic fits in with the authors particular version of Christian apologetics. I was reading through it, becoming increasingly skeptical that they were really applying the logic to their own beliefs that they claimed should be applied to the beliefs of others when I came upon this
First of all, everybody knows there is a god – especially the atheists. There used to be men who tried to prove Hitler was still alive. Now there are men who try to prove Elvis is still alive. Why? Because they are worried about it. For some reason, they feel more comfortable in their worldview if he is not dead. I do not spend my time proving there is no tooth fairy. I am not worried about it. It is outside of my belief system. So why do atheists try to prove there is no God? Because the question of God's existence is fundamental to the belief system which they are building.
Obviously, these people are not applying logic to their own beliefs. It is true that no adult spends time proving there is no tooth fairy, however, if you were surrounded by people who claimed that there was a tooth fairy, you very well would spend time trying to justify your belief in the lack of a tooth fairy.

(There are some other choice gems in there (or rather, they would be choice if it was not obvious these people believed what they were saying). Search for "feminism" for an example.)
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A common response to atheism is that atheists must be purposeless because, in the world view of most religions, their God is the source of all purpose, happiness, and love. Daylight Atheism has an interesting post which illustrates by analogy why being an atheist does not mean that one has no purpose, happiness, or love.


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Erika RS

May 2012

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