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!