Hell Is a School, Apparently

By now, you’ve all seen this T-shirt, which began circulating approximately several years before 17 people were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School, in Florida:

T-shirt: "Dear God, why do you allow violence in schools?" "I'm not allowed in schools. -- God"

As many people have pointed out, the implication is that, against all theology, God—or at least the God of sanctimonious T-shirt wearers—is not omnipresent. That a simple legislative measure is sufficient to banish God from a place.

But if you point this out, or indeed dare to make fun of a religious idea, institution, or person in a public forum, you’ll see veiled threats of hell:

godly comments

I’ve found that Christians far prefer veiled threats over overt ones. I think they’re uncomfortable with their own beliefs, and prefer to skate around them. Or maybe what they believe deep down isn’t what they believe in public. At any rate, the usual response I get is that Hell, in the afterlife, is simply an absence of God.

So, it’s like a school, I guess.

I’ve attended public school, and I still go there, for special events. I’ve never seen a pitchfork or smelled a lake of molten sulfur (and if there were, I’m sure there’d be railings so you didn’t fall in accidentally).

But really, if The Bad Afterlife is like being in an American public school, then sure, I’ll take that. It sounds an awful lot like ordinary life right now.

Does Christianity Offer the Best Basis for Science?

There’s an argument I’ve run across several times, that theism, and specifically Christianity, forms a much better basis for science than does atheism. Indeed, some people go so far as to claim that only Christianity provides a foundation for science. Matt Slick at CARM lays it out well (though Don Johnson Ministries makes a similar argument). After listing a number of influential scientists who were Christians, Slick writes:

To many Christians, the idea that God existed and brought the universe into existence meant that the universe could be understood because God was a God of order and his character would be reflected in creation (Rom. 1:20).  Instead of a Pantheon of gods who ran the universe in an unpredictable fashion, Christianity provided the monotheistic bedrock (Isaiah 43:10; 44:6,8; 45:5) upon which the scientific study of nature could be justified.  Many Christians expected to find the secrets that God had hidden in the universe and were confident in being able to discover them.  This is a critical philosophical foundation that is necessary if an emerging culture is to break the shackles of ignorance and superstition in order to discover what secrets exist in the world around them.

This emphasis on order seems odd, since one of the main features of Christianity is miracles, that is, violations of natural law. Without at least the resurrection of Jesus, there is no Christianity. Add to that the various miracles Jehovah, Jesus, and various and sundry saints are said to have performed, the common notion that God sometimes responds to prayer by performing additional miracles, and weekly transubstantiation in church, and you get a picture of reality in which any regularities, any laws of nature exist only so long as a malleable deity permits them to exist.

If scientists like Kepler and Newton saw the Christian God as fundamentally one of order rather than caprice, and drew inspiration for their scientific pursuits from that, fine. But that’s hardly the only type of Christianity out there. I doubt that theirs was even a majority view. But in a time and place where pretty much everyone was Christian (and where not being Christian often carried either social stigma or legal penalty), of course Christians are going to be the ones doing science.

It seems to me that Taoism is a much better match for Matt Slick’s description than Christianity. You could, I think, make a strong case for the notion that the Tao is natural law. There’s certainly the notion that you can either go with the Tao, or you can wear yourself out trying to go against it.

(Yes, this still leaves the question of why so many scientific discoveries came from Europe rather than China. But that’s an interesting question for another day. I suspect that the fact that Europeans wrote American history textbooks has something to do with it.)

I suppose it wouldn’t do to mention alchemy and algebra, whose prefix “al” betrays their Muslim origin. Or the fact that a large proportion of visible stars have Arabic names.

I also don’t see why it takes a whole religion or worldview to want to figure out what makes the world tick. Anyone can see that day follows night, summer follows spring, rocks always roll downhill, never up, and that oaks only come from acorns. Clearly there are some regularities, and these can be investigated. We’re curious creatures; figuring stuff out is fun.

There’s a related claim to the one that Christians founded all the sciences: that Christians founded all the major universities. I haven’t checked this, but I see no reason to doubt this claim.

This brings me to my final point: let’s grant, at least for the sake of argument, that Christians, motivated by their understanding of God as a lawmaker, got all of the sciences started; that most or all of the major universities were founded as institutions to learn how God set up the universe; that Christianity is the only religion — the only worldview — that could have kickstarted science this way, and that out of those beginnings grew science as we know it today… so what? Why keep religion around today?

A scaffolding is essential when beginning a new building. But after a certain point, it needs to go. I was on an all-milk diet for the first, crucial part of my life, and that helped make me into the person I am today. But that doesn’t mean that I should continue to drink milk as an adult; I especially shouldn’t be on an all-milk diet.

Whatever benefits religion may once have provided to science, these days it just gets in the way, from creationism to anti-gay “conversion therapy” to faith-based climate change denialism. It’s time to jettison it.

Christians Are Better than Their Religion

I had a lengthy discussion with one Nathanael Brown. (I’m sorry that the discussion is disordered, that you have to read it bottom to top, and there isn’t good threading. Blame Twitter.) Since this started in the context of demonstrations on the National Mall, both for and against, about whether the Bible’s rules about marriage and divorce should be written into US law.

He allowed that US law is not the same as God’s law, but with a caveat:

So I used Jeff Dee’s approach and asked what that meant: specifically, whether this was a threat, and what will happen to me after I die if I don’t accept Jesus. Would I be sent to hell, and would there be suffering?

He was very reluctant to answer directly:

I kept asking, and he kept ducking the question, hiding behind such fig leaves as Bible quotations and


In short, Nathanael came across as very reluctant to either face up to the ugly side of his belief, or either defend or condemn the “worship or burn” system. The closest he came was when asked why he’s not condemning God’s threat, when he’d surely condemn a mugger’s “your money or your life”:

I’m pretty sure that at some level, he recognizes that some Christian beliefs are immoral: that it’s not right to torture people, especially forever, especially for a “crime” as minor as not believing in a god for which there’s no good evidence. That just ain’t right. But at the same time, I’m guessing that he’s been brought up to believe that you’re supposed to believe these things, and to believe that they’re good; that you’re not supposed to question God or the Bible, and you’re certainly not supposed to think any of it is wrong.

This is the sort of thinking that leads people to defend genocide, and I can only hope that Nathanael eventually grows out of his mental prison and starts examining his beliefs honestly and critically.

I’m convinced that he’s better than his god, as are the vast majority of Christians. But he just won’t let himself realize that.

Dear Liberal Christians: Do You Know This Is A Christian Nation?

So I ran across this video of right-wing “historian” David Barton saying

If you look at signers of the Declaration of Independence, they said America is a Christian nation. So were we? Yes. … Are we? … America’s 82 to 88 percent professing Christian. I would say that qualifies for a Christian nation.

(emphasis added.)

It’s worth taking a closer look at Pew’s numbers.

Evangelical Protestant Churches 26.3%
Mainline Protestant Churches 18.1%
Historically Black Churches 6.9%
Catholic 23.9%
Mormon 1.7%
Jehovah’s Witness 0.7%
Orthodox 0.6%
Other Christian 0.3%
Total 78.5%

I’m not going to delve on the difference between Pew’s 78.5% and Barton’s 82-88%; let’s just assume that Christianity has fallen by 4-10% in three years, more or less evenly across denominations. Nor do I want to pick on David Barton specifically. He merely provided a representative quote in the general ballpark of “most Americans are Christians, so it’s our way or the highway”.

What’s more interesting to me is that if we take all these different flavors of Christian and bake them into a tasty pie chart, it looks like this:

Now, I’m guessing that Barton is in that blue 33.5% wedge, which many of the people in the other wedges consider crazy, heretical, or worse. I haven’t been following Christians’ internecine sniping much, but I recall a lot of the blue guys saying that the green guys aren’t True Christians. And of course the Mormons and JWs are on the chart not because the bigger sects consider them Real™ Christians, but because they consider themselves Christians.

My point here is that if you’re a non-crazy-right-wing-holy-roller Christian, then you’re probably not in the same wedge as Barton and the crazy right wing holy rollers. But they’re speaking for you anyway. In the video above, for instance, Barton is saying that since most Americans are Christians (call themselves “Christian”), therefore laws should follow Christian (right-wing Evangelical) principles.

But for some reason, I don’t hear a lot of liberal Christians calling right-wingers on this, demanding that the conservatives stop speaking for all Christians. Except, I guess, when the craziness reaches Fred Phelps levels. In most cases, however, silence is perceived as agreement.

So if you’re a Christian who doesn’t agree with the Pat Robertsons and Maggie Gallaghers and Bill Donohues and David Bartons of the world, you have a few options:

a) Get the right-wingers to stop using the word “Christian” when they really mean “Fundie”. Good luck with that.

b) Pick a different word for yourselves. I’d suggest “Jesusist”, but that has too many esses, so how about “Yeshuist”?

c) Stop giving cover to the crazy Christians. Raise a stink whenever someone says something crazy and claims to speak for you.

Or, I suppose, you could d) agree that yes, unbelievers and gays should be second-class citizens just like it says in the Bible, that there should be no wall of separation between church and state, and like that. I’d just like to know where things stand.


This weekend is Easter, at least by the calendar used in most of Christendom, so I thought it might be worth taking a look at the central message of Christianity.

The story in a nutshell: way back in the beginning, Adam and Eve, the first two humans, ate a fruit that God told them not to. As a result, every human is born with Original Sin. So God sent his son Jesus to Earth as a sacrifice, to atone for humanity and rescue us from Hell.

Where to begin? Leaving aside the many problems with the Adam and Eve story (like why God put that tree in the garden in the first place, without so much as a child-proof lock on it), and ignoring the question of whether it’s a literal story or a metaphor, there’s original sin: how does it get transmitted from parent to child? I’m guessing it’s not genetic, or else Christians would be pushing for research into bioengineering, so that we could one day have a generation of chilren born without original sin.

Or is it passed down like a title of nobility, or a debt? That is, it’s not a thing or a substance, but more like a contract that affects how God behaves toward us? If original sin is like a debt, then it seems unfair of God to hold us responsible for something that Adam and Eve did.

(By a fortuitous coincidence, while I was writing this, two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door, so I took the opportunity to ask some of the questions in this post. They didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t heard umpteen times before, and offered no good explanations, so I can proceed as planned, without major revisions.)

At any rate, God decided not to fix the problem right away, but to let a few thousand years (or more) elapse before doing something about it.

And what a solution he came up with! He decided to have a son (who may or may not be himself, depending on whether you accept the doctrine of the Trinity or not, and how you interpret it) to be executed. This was to be construed as a blood sacrifice: sacrificing his son (or himself) to himself. This would somehow make things all better by allowing him not to send people to Hell.

The hell that he created, or at least subcontracted to Satan. Because God wanted there to be a hell in which the people descended from the people who disobeyed God would be tortured forever.

So how exactly does that work? Or, as comedian Doug Stanhope put it,

Jesus died for your sins. How does one affect the other? I fucking hit myself in the foot with a shovel for your mortgage. I don’t get it.

If God wants to forgive people, why can’t he just forgive them, without having to kill his son? If it’s to create a loophole in the law that every sin requires a sacrifice, then the law is stupid and he should have just repealed it.

If sinful people can’t get into heaven, why does God insist on sending them to hell? Why not just obliterate them, so that at least they don’t suffer? If there has to be a hell, for whatever reason, why doesn’t he reform it and get rid of the gratuitous torture?

If that’s not possible because God’s constitution doesn’t allow for amendments, then he’s either stupid or malevolent (and given that he decided to torture people forever, and for someone else’s crime, I’d be leaning toward malevolent, if I weren’t already leaning toward imaginary).

Basically, Jesus is a scapegoat. Scapegoats, you may recall, are animals or lower-class people upon whom the crimes of the community were laid, and who are then punished or killed for those crimes. The whole notion rests upon the notion that sin or crime or guilt is a substance that can be transferred from one person to another. If it did, we could talk to prisoners on death row and ask if they’d be willing to take on the additional guilt of, say, a hundred guys serving for pot possession, or a thousand parking tickets. But every advanced country, in particular the ones with the lowest crime rates, has recognized that this isn’t justice, but merely a salve that allows people to buy a guilt-free life, rather than having to live with the consequences of one’s actions, and having to think ahead and avoid doing things that might come back to haunt one.

In short, it’s not just that there isn’t a shred of evidence to think that the Easter story is true. It also doesn’t make sense on its own terms. The story of Xenu makes more sense than this, and that’s saying something.

Sect Fight!

From the AP:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The annual cleaning of one of Christianity’s holiest churches deteriorated into a brawl between rival clergy Wednesday, as dozens of monks feuding over sacred space at the Church of the Nativity battled each other with brooms until police intervened.

The ancient church, built over the traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, is shared by three Christian denominations – Roman Catholics, Armenians and Greek Orthodox. Wednesday’s fight erupted between Greek and Armenian clergy, with both sides accusing each other of encroaching on parts of the church to which they lay claim.

But Christianity is a Religion of Peace™, isn’t it?

Reuters also reports:

“It was a trivial problem that … occurs every year,” said police Lieutenant-Colonel Khaled al-Tamimi. “Everything is all right and things have returned to normal,” he said. “No one was arrested because all those involved were men of God.

(emphasis added.)

I guess they were following Matthew 5:39, the What God Really Meant Version: “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. Unless he attempteth to take thy broom, in which case punch the bastard.”

Fitna in Arkansas

Fitna is an Arabic word meaning something like “disorder” or “unrest”. It’s often used as a justification for women covering themselves up, by not tempting men into lustful thoughts and the depravity and civil unrest that are sure to follow.

Now, I’ve always found this argument rather insulting: it basically says that men are weak-willed, that the moment we see an exposed elbow, we’ll go into some testosterone-fueled frenzy, unable to think straight, stopping at nothing in our craving for sex.

In other contexts, this is not considered a virtue. If I walk past you with my new iPad 2 or whatever the hot toy du jour is, and you like it so much that you steal it from me, that makes you a thief who needs to learn some self-control.

Now, obviously it’s polite to refrain from drinking in front of an alcoholic, or smoking in front of someone who’s trying to quit, but as a rule, people should be expected to control their antisocial emotions (although there’s an interesting exception, that I keep hoping to write about).

So anyway, the reason I bring this up is because of the bus ads in Arkansas, which you’ve probably heard of by now: in brief, the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason wanted to put some billboards on buses, saying “Are you good without God? Millions are.” The Central Arkansas Transit Authority had a fit, but decided that it couldn’t legally stop them. So instead, they demanded that the CoR pay a $36,000 deposit to insure against vandalism. As a person at the company that handles advertising put it,

“in reality, Arkansas is the buckle of the Bible Belt and I can easily envision zealots or upstanding citizens with a strong faith acting out.”

In other words, fitna. The transit authority and its advertising agency are afraid that the good people of Arkansas, once they see an atheist ad, will fly into a fury of vandalism and won’t be able to help themselves from keying the bus or slashing its tires.

Arkansans, is that really how you want to be seen? Unable to control your temper or play nice with others? Because if so, you may want to get a nice, modest gingham burqa to cover up your wimminfolk. I’m sure there’s someone out there who’ll be happy to sell you one.

Update Fri Jun 17 12:50 2011: Fixed broken HTML. HT alert reader Fez.

Religion Makes You Stupid, Part N

The Washington Post has an of a type that’s all too common. It involves the Holy Sepulcher church in Jerusalem.

For those who don’t know the background, Holy Sepulcher is a church in Jerusalem that’s controlled by an alliance of six religious sects. And when I say “alliance”, I mean warring factions and an uneasy mix of all wanting to be at the same place, but hating each other’s guts. So over the centuries they’ve mapped out the church down to the inch to determine who controls which parts.

A ladder placed on a ledge over the entrance sometime in the 19th century, for example, has remained there ever since because of a disagreement over who has the authority to take it down.

So you know it’s going to be stupid. Epic stupid. An Iliad of stupid and an Odyssey of petty.

They won’t put in a fire exit.

Because everybody wants a fire exit (the church can hold thousands, but only has one door), but nobody wants to give up any space to put in the door.

The most likely location for an exit would require the agreement of the Greek Orthodox, Copts and Ethiopians. But wherever a new exit is located, one of the churches would have to cede part of the sacred space under its control. “I don’t know where they’re going to do it,” said Father Samuel Aghoyan, the senior Armenian priest at the church.

Adding a layer of political complexity, some of the space directly outside other potential exit points in the church walls is controlled by an Islamic religious body known as the Waqf, which does not recognize Israel’s control in Jerusalem and is therefore unlikely to cooperate.

This is what religion does to people: it divides them into in-group and out-group. Saved and unsaved, sheep and goats, faithful and infidel, us and them (just ask a Muslim in Israel, a Jew in Palestine, a Catholic or Protestant in Ireland, or anyone who’s tried to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons). Even if it doesn’t directly cause enmity between groups, it certainly encourages this sort of tribalism.

Grow the fuck up, people. This isn’t kindergarten. Lives are at stake.


I was approached over lunch by a couple of student fundies trying to convert me to Christianity.

They started with a slow buildup about whether matter and energy are all that exist, or whether it’s possible that the supernatural exists. I asked them to define “supernatural”, since as far as I can tell, that word simply means “magic”. They said “something beyond the natural world”. I asked them to explain what that means, exactly, but they just sort of floundered around.

Here’s a hint: if you can’t explain what it is that you believe in, how can you hope to convince someone else that it exists?

They went on to say that relative morality is bad because you can’t say that genocide is bad. In order to denounce someone like Hitler, apparently you need absolute morality. I asked them for specifics, and they said that rape and theft, or telling someone to do these things, are absolutely wrong. So naturally asked whether, when (on God’s orders, presumably), or when Jesus told his disciples to steal a horse, that was immoral.

Ah, but it’s okay when God does it. So I guess absolute morality is kinda relative.

But that’s okay, because only Christianity provides a framework with which to make sense of things like morality. I asked how they thought non-Christians manage to do it. One of the fundies said that “Well, when you look at things like morality, you’re doing it within your own mental framework.” So I guess Christianity is the only system in which things make sense, aside from all the others.

I made the obvious rebuttal: that they were arguing that belief in a god is useful, not that it’s correct. To which they said that no, they also think that God exists. So I asked what method they use to determine what’s true and what isn’t. The same guy said that they believe the Bible: if it’s in the Bible, it’s true.

Leaving aside the circular reasoning of this approach (which he conceded), I asked whether this approach was reliable, i.e., if “it says so in the Bible” leads you to believe that X is true, is it a safe bet that X is, in fact, objectively true. So naturally I had to ask about cockatrices and unicorns in the Bible, and whether bats are fowl. I actually showed them this last passage, and they mumbled something about how different translations use different words (FYI, the NIV says “birds”; so does the NASB and NKJV). So evidently what the Bible says is always true, except when it’s not.

I would have gone on, but my lunch hour was up and I had to leave. Ah, well. Maybe next time.

Margaret Downey Can Go to Hell

About a year ago, a group of us was* at happy hour downtown. There was a Secular Coalition for America meeting nearby, so I got to meet a few famous atheists (or at least famous in certain atheist circles), including Dan Barker and Brother Richard.

The bit that sticks in my mind, though, is when Margaret Downey told some of us that as atheists, we should purge our speech of religious expressions.

“Oh, lord”, I thought. I made a herculean effort to remain jovial, but the reaction she got was close to pandemonium.

Even setting aside the fact that policing the language for morally inappropriate words and phrases strikes me as being too close to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for comfort, there’s also the fact that human language is a product of its culture.

Whether we like it or not, religion and other mythological ideas have left their mark on the language. They’re common tropes that we can all refer to in speech. In December, I might joke that such-and-such annoying customer will be getting coal in his stocking. And after Christmas I sometimes ask my friends whether Santa was good to them. Not because any of us believe in Santa Claus, but just as a roundabout way of asking whether they got everything they wanted. If we remove religious references from speech, shouldn’t we do the same with Santa Claus?

What about Internet trolls? Or gremlins in malfunctioning machinery? Should we stop referring to Wall Street prognosticators as oracles who read tea leaves? And where would games and online fora be without avatars?

For that matter, should we stop using atlases, named after the titan holding up the world, depicted on the frontispiece of early books of maps? While we’re at it, we’d have to rename most of the planets, moons, constellations, and the continent of Europe. We’d also have to eliminate Thursday and Friday.

It’s not just ancient myths, either: discussions about the limits of knowledge invariable eventually include the phrase “living in the Matrix“. And a delusional kook who refuses to see reason can be described as having taken the blue pill. Heck, even Non Sequitur recently referenced the Kobayashi Maru.

The Bible gives us a plethora of myths and expressions to draw upon: David and Goliath, the good Samaritan, the kiss of death, 30 pieces of silver, “am I my brother’s keeper?”, the word “antediluvian”, and much more. The Greeks gave us Achilles heels, Procrustean beds, Pandora’s box, odysseys, and mentoring.

Obviously, the difference between Christian myths and ancient Greek ones is that the Christian ones are still widely believed. Ideally, we should be moving to where we can put the Bible next to the Kalevala and the Iliad on our bookshelves, something that influenced society in the past, but that no one takes seriously anymore.

But there’s a difference between post-theism and anti-theism. If you stay away from a thing, you’re being influenced, perhaps controlled by that thing. I used to avoid Top 40 music until I realized that I was cutting myself off from some music that was quite good despite being popular. I don’t want to be controlled by religion, and so I plan to continue using whatever terms come naturally, whether they’re religious or not. When I have to catch a dawn flight, I’ll complain about having to get up at an ungodly hour. I’ll complain about the unholy mess of cables in the machine room. I won’t stop using expressions like “Christ on a cracker” and “Jesus titty-fucking Christ”. Hell, no.

I’m sure Ms. Downey’s heart is in the right place, and hope she doesn’t feel crucified or martyred if she runs across this rant. I just don’t want to be limited by someone else’s superstition.


Update, 22:21: Alert reader Fez took issue with the phrase “a group of us was”, saying it should be “a group of us were”. As of this writing, we’ve failed to reach consensus on which one it should be. They both sound right to me. My go-to reference in matters grammatical, Grammar Girl (or, in this case, her guest writer), says that there aren’t any hard and fast rules, but that “was” is more common American usage. Feel free to discuss in the comments.