Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Divine Santa

I don't know if a god exists. I don't think anyone really knows. For one, the concept of God (or gods) is often poorly defined. And when you push people for definitions, either the definitions are so vague as to not be descriptive at all, or you start to find differences between the types of gods people believe in.

There is not just one single concept of God.

That might be a surprise to some people. Surely everyone knows who God is? Well, not exactly. What you mean by "God" is almost certainly different to what other people mean by "God", and because people are getting their views about God from different sources, and via different interpretations of those sources, and sometimes inferring things about God from their own experiences, there are inevitably many differences between those views.

So I want to discuss some different views about God...

Divine Santa

One of the more common views about God is what I like to call the "Divine Santa". The reason for this is probably best described in the words of the popular Christmas Carol:
He knows when you are sleeping,
He knows when you're awake,
He knows if you've been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!

In fact the whole theme of the song, "Santa Claus is coming to town", actually reminds me of the Christadelphian narrative that we have to be on high alert, waiting for the arrival of Jesus at any moment. I don't think there is any actual literary parallel. Only that perhaps the underlying human emotions and concerns are probably similar.

This all-knowing Santa is coming to bring judgement or reward, depending on how you've lived, so you'd better be on your best behaviour, because he's coming real soon. Sound familiar?

Then you've got the fact that Santa and Jesus have the same birthday in popular culture, but now I'm getting way off-topic...

I want to focus on God here rather than Jesus. Obviously Christadelphians believe the two are separate beings. If it helps to view the angels as Santa's little helpers or "elves", then by all means...

Unfortunately Christadelphians don't believe in Satan, so the Grinch is out of the picture for now. Oh why must the Christadelphian religion be so bland!

Divine Santa is the god us ex-Christadelphians get threatened with pretty much every time something happens in the world. Apparently almost any event that happens is a sign from Santa and they feel the need to remind us that the elves are getting ready and unless we behave like good boys and girls we might end up with coal in our stocking when Rudolf comes...and he's coming real soon! Apparently.

It's cute. May they all get the elf and fairy costumes they sincerely asked for.

Blundering Genius

One of the views that really confuses me is that God is both a super-intelligent all-powerful wizard who created the universe simply by speaking it into existence, and at the same time a suspiciously human-like deity who acts surprised when things repeatedly go wrong.

One of my favourite verses in the Bible is Genesis 6:6:
The Lord regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was highly offended
Genesis 6:6 NET

The all-powerful, all-knowing mastermind who created the earth just 4 & 5 chapters earlier (yes, he did it twice. Why do you ask?), now regrets that he created humans on it, and got offended. Did he not see it coming?

No matter, he's all-powerful. He spoke the universe into existence. He could just speak again and things would be all good again, right? Right?

Not so. The most brilliant mind in the universe can at this point conceive of no better plan than drowning everyone and starting over.

It's so comical that it's actually frightening that people believe this is real. Then again, I once believed it too. It's embarrassing.

Then consider the world we live in. Apparently it used to be perfect, but due to a design oversight involving a poorly placed tree, God was forced to sabotage his own creation in order to punish everyone for a crime the first couple of people committed. Even the animals suffered, for reasons no one seems to know. What was this terrible crime? Eating a piece of fruit. I know, I know... what were they thinking?!

This is still the dominant view among Christadelphians, although obviously not stated exactly in those words. They claim that the criminals had "free will", but refuse to acknowledge God's part in an event he created the pre-conditions for, and knew the outcome of in advance. Some will admit it was possibly a "set up" (ya think?) and instead claim that the point was to teach these sin-prone mortals a lesson. Really? For what? Being human? Whose idea was that? Oh, right. Carry on then...

However, we are told we can take comfort in the fact that our all-knowing-yet-oft-surprised deity has a plan to fix it all, for reals this time, and in the very near future. He won't say exactly when, because, well, it's a surprise...

But he did drop some hints at how he's going to fix it. Any guesses?

If your guess did not involve a whole lot of senseless killing of people who for whatever reason didn't happen to believe the right stuff, you'd be wrong.

Presumably after that, everything is all going to work out hunky dory (third time lucky?) and the universe will stop being a place of chaos and death and start being cloud cuckoo land, just like that.

Why did he not just create cloud cuckoo land in the first place you might ask? 

Hey look! A squirrel!

But just so we're clear, in the kingdom, you might want to stick to eating vegetables. Just to be safe.

Cosmic Genie with very low KPI's

Switching gears a bit, another very common view of God relates to prayer. Jesus instructed people to pray, and even included such helpful suggestions as:
  • Praying for God's will to be done. What would happen if we didn't?
  • Praying for food. I'm sure that is really effective in places where there isn't enough.
  • Praying for God to "not lead us into temptation". Now if only Adam and Eve knew about that one. I can only assume that not praying for this means God might actually lead us into temptation instead. Apparently we have to "opt-out". Damn fine-print.
Jesus also says pretty clearly that whatever anyone asks in his name will be done (John 14:14). Apparently that doesn't actually mean what it says, as should be pretty obvious to anyone who has prayed for a Ferrari. Or world peace. Or even, like, not getting cancer.

I guess something like, "In Jesus's name please stop sending natural disasters that kill people, and for goodness sake give the starving kids something to eat", is just too easy. There's probably a one-miracle-per-prayer policy somewhere in the T's & C's. I don't see why the "I'm not acting unless you pray" thing was necessary either.

But for all the prayers, nothing measurable or noticeable has changed. People pray to the same god they believe could have prevented the disaster, but chose not to. Some praise this god for saving a Bible from a fire that killed people. Who are we to question his priorities?

Perhaps the strangest thing about prayer is that believers seem to have such low expectations. They're happy to waffle on about the power of prayer and how it has made a difference to their lives, but if that's true there are some rather disturbing conclusions we could draw. Either they're deceiving themselves about the effectiveness of prayer, or they're admitting they have never once prayed for God to heal the millions of kids who die each year.

If prayer can't provide any tangible benefit to the lives of the millions of people who are seriously suffering in this world, but can help you find your car keys, or put food on your table every day, then forgive me if I don't think such a deity is worthy of worship.

A favourite excuse of believers is that a prayer needs to be offered in accordance with God's will. I could ask, "What is the point of praying for things that are already God's will?", but I'm not sure the answers would be worth the time it took to read or listen to them.

Prayer is the zero-risk, zero-cost "solution" to all the problems we can't fix on our own. Except that when it seems apparent that God isn't going to fix them either, people seem to just shrug and try prayer again next time. You know what they say about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

The best prayers are the ones with a non-zero probability of happening anyway by chance.

Nothing builds confidence in prayer like confirmation bias!


  1. When one has come out of the Christadelphian indoctrination bubble it becomes frustratingly hard to understand why seemingly intelligent people can`t see through the beliefs they hold on to, when with a little rational thought they would get to uncover the fallacy of their beliefs and see them laid bare as clearly as you have written.
    What are we to understand from the fact that no comments have been made, up to now, by believers in support of their continued beliefs? Are they thinking them over?

    1. //When one has come out of the Christadelphian indoctrination bubble it becomes frustratingly hard to understand why seemingly intelligent people can`t see through the beliefs they hold on to, when with a little rational thought they would get to uncover the fallacy of their beliefs and see them laid bare as clearly as you have written. //

      There was a time when I found it difficult to understand why seemingly intelligent people couldn't see that the Christadelphians were right.

      For me, it was about timing, and about what information I had come across, and my attitude towards seeking truth. Only once all of that fell into place did the rest happen naturally. Most of my deconversion was due to me discovering new information I was not previously aware of, but that also required a desire to seek out that information.

      I have long wondered about the questions you ask, and will probably continue to do so. My overall view is that most people (including myself) are not entirely rational about many things. We kind of stumble our way through life and it's a bonus if we happen to be able to reason well about something. So I tend not to expect too much from people in this area. My logic is reasonable to me, but perhaps I'm just not intelligent enough to see its flaws? Maybe that's true of everyone...

      //What are we to understand from the fact that no comments have been made, up to now, by believers in support of their continued beliefs? Are they thinking them over?//

      We've discussed this before. I have a few hypotheses about why there are few comments on my blog. I'd like to think I have caused some people to think more about things, but I'm not expecting them to change their entire worldview overnight. That kind of change often takes years, and the person will do it themselves. That's not up to me at all. I'm just trying to help people ask more questions and think more critically about things.

      Here's some possibilities for why no one comments here:

      1. Not many are even aware of (or interested in) the blog.

      2. They don't think it's worth commenting.

      3. They're not interested in arguing (really? That's not the CDs I know hehe). FWIW I'm not interested in arguing either, but I think discussion is healthy. Actually in my experience I've found most believers are not very comfortable discussing their faith with someone who asks probing questions. They just want to believe what they want without having to think about whether it is true.

      4. They think truth is dependent on assumptions, and that I just make different assumptions to them. Yes, I have had several discussions like this. This seems to be quite a common view.

      5. They have their own responses that work for them, but they're not prepared to "test them out" lest they be found wanting.

      6. Questioning faith is scary. Better not to even go there.

      7. They would rather keep their world view (along with the social benefits) intact. Too risky to question things.

      There are probably many other reasons.

  2. From your list of possible reasons why no one comments, the last sentence from number 3 is, in my opinion, spot on. It`s a comfort position.
    I would add to number 6 and say that, to a believer, any thought of questioning faith brings about a feeling of "What would God think of me doing this?" Perhaps that`s the scary bit.
    It was probably after I got over this feeling that I was able to pursue turning over the stones of my faith to discover what was lurking underneath.

    1. //It was probably after I got over this feeling that I was able to pursue turning over the stones of my faith to discover what was lurking underneath.//

      Yes, I reached a similar point I think. There was a time when I somehow became unsure of whether Christadelphian speakers and leaders really knew as much as they claimed to know. I also realised I was unsure of things I had previously believed to be true. From then onwards, I became a lot more interested in finding out what was actually true, rather than just how well I could justify my existing beliefs. I didn't care whether I had been wrong - I just wanted to get to the bottom of it all.

      Eventually I had to also accept that almost nothing can be known with absolute certainty, but the evidence I did find pointed overwhelmingly away from any idea that the Bible was divinely inspired, or even historically accurate in some cases. Those who believed were not able to demonstrate any of their claims, and instead relied on flimsy arguments and apologetics. Not much has changed in that department.

      They seemed to think that so long as their beliefs were justifiable via argument, there was nothing more for them to prove. i.e. "If it's possible, then it might as well be true". This is so obviously flawed, but no one seemed to hear my objections to it. It was like they didn't care about truth. They just wanted to go on believing, and in some cases it was clear that they were using whatever means necessary to prop up their beliefs.

      Perhaps what bothered me most of all (and sometimes still does) is that no one ever showed me why their beliefs were true. They just went on doing their thing. So you've got a whole bunch of people so confident that they have the truth, and confident that they know all these things about the world and the future. And yet not one of them will demonstrate to me how they know they are correct and not mistaken. It's basic epistemology. I just want to know how they reached their conclusions.

      If it's true, then either it should be demonstrable, or otherwise belief is not warranted. So why won't they demonstrate it? I think I know why, and that's even more frustrating... If they know they can't demonstrate it, why go on believing it? It makes no sense.

  3. Well, I did comment, and not always in agreement with wither of you, so I'm counted out already. I've also made comments similar to (4) about assumptions, but slightly different. I wouldn't say that truth is dependent on assumptions, but I do think that perception of truth can be very dependent on assumptions. Often there is evidence for both sides of an argument, or at least evidence that could be interpreted to support both sides, and any individual is likely to swing towards the interpretation that backs their point of view. It also makes debating frustrating when both sides are confident that they are right based on the same facts and completely different assumptions. Which to me answers your final question: Why go on believing it? Because they know it is true. Whether or not they can demonstrate it to you, I think they believe they can demonstrate it to themselves, and you are just a closed-minded, hard-hearted old sinner.

    It is very easy to just look at a passage or an idea, and interpret it the same way as you always have. I found it very helpful being exposed to different ideas and interpretations. Whether or not I agreed with them, it made me think, and even when an interpretation made sense I'm not sure I would have come up with it myself. It can be challenging, too, and I agree it can be very tempting to just forget all about it and stick with what you already know.

    1. //Which to me answers your final question: Why go on believing it? Because they know it is true. Whether or not they can demonstrate it to you, I think they believe they can demonstrate it to themselves, and you are just a closed-minded, hard-hearted old sinner.//

      You may well be right (about the assumptions thing, although it's also possible I am a closed-minded, hard-hearted old sinner too :P).

      I think I need to look into this some more. Perhaps there's some irony in needing to question my assumptions about the role of assumptions in belief formation, but it's looking like a bit of a rabbit hole that I need to explore.

    2. Btw, I don't for a second think that differences in assumptions can mean that contradictory things can ACTUALLY be true simultaneously. I think assumptions influence beliefs, but not reality. I assumed that's what you meant too, JJ.

      I think assumptions should be questioned, and should be as simple as possible and also as few in number as possible. I think most people generally agree, based on the fact that today we generally find the germ theory of disease more convincing than the idea that disease is caused by demons.

      Our general agreement does not necessarily mean these assumptions are correct - but shared assumptions does mean they are not the cause of differences in belief (if beliefs are dependent on assumptions). In other words, if we make the same assumptions, but arrive at different beliefs, then we don't need to worry about assumptions when determining the source of our disagreement.

      Further, if truth and reality are not dependent on assumptions, then in order for our beliefs to align with reality, we need to remove any unnecessary assumptions.

      That's not to say that assumptions are not important. They clearly are, since they influence beliefs and beliefs influence behaviour. Some assumptions are necessary and unavoidable, for practical or pragmatic purposes.

      However, I think that if things such as the existence of God or the truth of the Bible cannot be demonstrated without merely assuming them directly, then there's no good reason to believe them. And if merely assumed, any beliefs based on those assumptions will effectively be wilful self-delusion.

      That said, I think most Christadelphians don't just assume those things. They tend to think they have evidence and reasons to believe them, which means if assumptions are relevant, they're far more subtle.

    3. I think the two go together: they believe they have evidence, but the evidence is interpreted based on their pre-existing assumptions. It's like comments I think you've made about prophecy: it's much easier to believe that anything that matches a prophecy is a "fulfillment" if you already assume the prophecy is correct (and it's also much easier to shift the unfulfilled parts into the future if you know the prophecy must be correct and it hasn't happened yet).

      I think a major reason why we need assumptions is to work at a higher level of abstraction. Things we have already demonstrated (or believe others have demonstrated) can be safely assumed, so we're not spending years building up the groundwork to make one simple deduction. This is obviously problematic if the assumptions are wrong, but is really powerful when the assumptions are right. The old "standing on the shoulders of giants" concept.

    4. I agree. Making assumptions is not in itself a problem. As you rightly point out it's an essential part of life.

      It is when we build our entire world view on those assumptions and then build our whole life around them, that problems can arise. Especially since it seems many people are not aware of the assumptions their world view is built on. Perhaps we all have blind spots in this area. It's not the end of the world, but I think it's healthy to question the foundations once in a while. That's as true for me as it is for Christadelphians.

      Meanwhile, I think people will (sometimes) automatically question their assumptions as a way to resolve cognitive dissonance. When something doesn't fit, we may realise that one of our assumptions is wrong, or at least in doubt. That's when we have the opportunity to move our beliefs closer to reality. When our thought processes and questions change from "How can I defend my existing belief" to "How can I determine the truth about X", we are ready to learn something new.

  4. Hi JJ,
    Much of what you say is right.
    But, some of my former beliefs, many central to holding the Christadelphian faith, are wrong in an absolute way.
    There are, no doubt, some who firmly believe that there are fairies at the bottom of their gardens, that the world is flat, or that man has never reached the moon. However much evidence is presented to disprove their beliefs, they hold on to them and will not be shaken.
    The same applies to Christadelphian beliefs which are comfortable to hold on to, have been held since soon after being born, rather than facing up to the evidence which would disprove them - absolutely (belief in fairies excepted!).

    1. This is why beliefs should be verifiable (or testable). Otherwise we run the risk of self-deception.

      If every outcome or piece of evidence could be reinterpreted in support of a particular pre-determined conclusion (hello apologists), then that conclusion could never be tested or confirmed. To "believe anyway", would be self-deception.

      It is very common for people to think that their beliefs are automatically true until proven false, which just means they don't understand why beliefs need to be testable if they are to have any meaning in reality.

    2. Mancott, my main point is that, while I think Christadelphians are wrong, I don't think most of them are deliberately misleading themselves or others. I think we can simultaneously hold the views that “Christadelphian teachings are wrong in an absolute sense” and “Most Christadelphians are not aware of the inconsistencies of their positions.”

  5. JJ,
    I agree with you.
    //Most Christadelphians are not aware of the inconsistencies of their positions//.
    This in the main seems true. If they are happy with this, and sweet and kind and gentle with it, then I for one don`t object.
    But, and it`s a BIG but. I do strongly object to the indoctrination of the young before they have the chance to compare what they are being/have been taught. Obviously Christadelphians will want to teach their offspring and others the "truths" they hold dear. If they are so sure that what they believe really is "The Truth", and as they understand it demonstrably so, then they shouldn`t be concerned if their offspring have the chance to compare this with other views. They do seem to try to wrap their kids up in a Christadelphian bubble, not allowing the other views and influences to get anywhere near to them.


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