The Truce on Christmas

Oh I’m a Christian holiday; I’m a symbol of original sin.
I’ve a pagan tree and a magical wreath and bow-tie on my chin!
Oh I’m a pagan heresy; I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy, with a lazy eye, and a penchant for sublime.
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy; I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist.
For I make no full apology; for the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest; I’m a construct of your mind.

-Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas Unicorn

Though an atheist, I still enjoy putting up Christmas decorations, and I’m not alone in that regard.

On my fireplace, a long plastic evergreen bough snakes between an Irish Santa Claus, a Polish Angel, and a sitting Buddha. To the right is my childhood Christmas teddy bear, wearing a red sleeping cap trimmed with white fur, and to the left are Christmas cards from friends and family. In my refrigerator, a turkey from some Muslim friends waits patiently for the tandoori treatment, while homemade peppermint ice cream slowly freezes below. On my Christmas tree, fragile glass ornaments from my wife’s family intermingle with clunky ceramic trinkets from my youth as well as those I’ve collected from my various skeptical and atheist organizations. Hanging behind it are stockings for our son, our two cats, and one that reminds children to fear the wrath of Krampus. Opposite the tannenbaum are a family of snowmen surrounding a menorah, driedel, and gelt. All are framed by glittering white lights that wash the entrance to my house with a warm glow, echoed by seasonal candles in every window.

I think Tertullian would approve:

“Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.”

-Tertullian of Carthage, “On Idolatry”

No surprise then, to find out that this patristic Grinch didn’t celebrate Christmas. Indeed, it wasn’t even until the end of the Fourth Century that St. John Chrysostom in Antioch sought to make the 25th of December the official day to recognize Christ’s birth. A day which, as it happened, also celebrated the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Natalis Solis Invictus), though Chrysostom dismissed the coincidence: “But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”

Thus the early Christian fathers snubbed the original “reason for the season,” namely axial tilt.

Cultures the world over, and throughout human history, have celebrated the annual death and rebirth of the sun, typically with feasting, lights, decorations, and singing. These serve a practical purpose as well as symbolic; the solstice is the darkest of the dark days of winter, when good cheer is at a premium; also heralding the beginning of the coldest months of the year, during which extra livestock become a liability. At this time, the beasts are slaughtered, the new wine is drunk, and the candles are lit while all engage in revelry.

“The delusion you’re trying to cure is called ‘Christmas,’ Duncan. It’s the crazy notion that the longest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens. It becomes true. Works every year, like clockwork.”

-Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

In many ways, the history of Christmas is the history of Christianity itself. As the Western and Eastern churches solidified their power and influence over Eurasia, Christmas adapted itself to the particular cultural mores of each society. The Catholic bishop of a minor Turkish town, whose only notable career achievement was being present during the routing of Arianism during the Council of Nicaea, inexplicably spawned a tradition of gift-giving among the children of Germanic people who lived a thousand miles away. Though the precise origins of this practice are lost to the mists of history, the myth has clearly eclipsed the man.

Saint Nicholas, usually with an unsavory helper (such as the demonic Krampus in Austria, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands), settled into the well-worn route first used by the perennial visits of Odin during the midwinter festival of Yule. With Nick and friends were blended other traditions, such as the blood-sacrificing Wrenboys among the Celts, the harvest-celebrating Wassailers among the British, and the life-affirming Mistletoe throughout Northern Europe. Thus did Holy Mother Church pacify the newly-baptized heathens, by recontextualizing their idiosyncrasies within the ever-expanding boundaries of orthodoxy.

Undoubtedly, it was this Catholic indulgence of paganism that gave the Reformers absolute fits about the holiday. Martin Luther evicted the papish Nicholas and conscripted the Christ-Child himself to distribute holiday presents, and John Calvin (though he personally found moderate Christmas celebrations acceptable) through his theology influenced the Calvinist Reformers to abolish the holiday in Geneva in the 16th century, as well as in the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

“…holy days of certain saints commanded by man, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady. Which things, because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.”

-Church of Scotland, “First Book of Discipline (1560)

This theology emigrated to the United States with the British Puritans, and though they could not always ban festivities, made it reasonably clear that European-style revelry was not welcome in the New World. As Cotton Mather suggested (when speaking of not celebrating Christmas), “Good Men may love one another, and may treat one another with a most Candid Charity, while he that Regardeth a Day, Regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that Regardeth not the Day, also shows his Regard unto the Lord, in his not Regarding of it…” Indeed, the traditional American Christmas was in danger of being stillborn, were it not for the “Knickerbockers,” a literary circle that included Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Clement Clarke Moore. The former was the author of much of America’s early mythology, and reimagined the rowdy English customs of yore as quaint, cozy, and centered on the family. The latter is best known as the poet responsible for the 1822 verse “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” (also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), which reoriented the European figure for an American audience.

It was just this gift-giving character that thrilled Yankee merchants eager to sell toys and other trinkets to parents who were increasingly becoming softer in their child-rearing. Thus this refocus on the commercial aspects of the holiday season also depended on the emphasis of familial connection, both of which persist to modern day. Between Thomas Nast and the Coca-Cola Company, the standardization of the Santa Claus imagery and costume by the beginning of the 20th century had become an internationally-recognized signal of the season. From there, it was really only a matter of time before Kris Kringle replaced the Kristkindle as the primary representative of the holiday, along with the department store endorsements, coruscating displays of excess, and pink aluminum Christmas trees that lead many to recoil from the season’s consumerism (though Libanius noted similar excess regarding Saturnalia/Kalends in the fourth century).

“I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

-Charlie Brown, “A Charlie Brown Christmas

As a boy, one of my earliest memories of the holiday is of the Ku Klux Klan seeking to and succeeding in placing a cross on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, in competition with a menorah that had been erected to recognize the Jewish solstice festival of Hanukkah. Although the specific ramifications of the First Amendment to the Constitution were beyond my grasp at the time, I do recall understanding that, at least within a public space, even if one doesn’t like the message being presented, fair is fair.

Which is a concept seemingly inaccessible to the likes of Bill O’Reilly and his co-combatants in the War on Christmas:

Though his protestations and presumptions are likely to send atheists and Christians alike into apoplexy, O’Reilly voices the oft-irrational concerns of the common American: in this case, that the godless heathens are coming to take our Christmas trees away. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. What the long-suffering President of American Atheists (and, I daresay, most of the infidel contingent he represents) would like to see is for the holiday to resign from its government position, and instead to spend its time exclusively in the private sector. And certainly, when it comes to overtly religious displays (like a nativity scene or an angel or a cross) on public property, I think Silverman is justified in his push for state neutrality.

But I’m willing to consider a truce at this point.

In part because I love Christmas so much, in part because squabbling over the public square diminishes my enjoyment of the season, and in part because I think the holiday has already outgrown its religious heritage, especially here in America. Here’s what I propose: Christmas shall henceforth be treated as a secular holiday open to the interpretation and enjoyment of all. Christians are welcome to revel in the theological implications of the day’s symbolism, while atheists and others may pick and choose those aspects of the day which resonate with their own particular values. The Christmas tree in the square will be a malleable and inclusive symbol, able to support the weight of Magi, Menorahs, and Mohammed, as well as any other marginalized culture that would appreciate a little bit of cheer in the darkness of winter (including we joyless atheists).

Black night behind the tamarisks—the owls begin their chorus—
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors—let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if “faint and forced the laughter,” and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

-Rudyard Kipling, “Christmas in India

Is such a truce possible? Would it hold? I think so, and I think that many of us have already negotiated something similar with our own consciences. After all, if anything has been demonstrated over the past couple centuries in America, it’s that Christmas is a major part of our culture, and it has been able to adjust to the demands of a changing history. I think it can handle a few atheist decorations on the branch.

The Generosity Gap

Why should we give?

Ask a group of atheists, and you’ll most likely hear answers such as, “because it helps people in need,” or “because it makes society better,” or “because we might need people to help us someday.”

What you don’t hear very often is, “because God tells us to.”

Which is something that you might be likely to hear if you ask a group of Christians the same thing. And rightly so, because you can find gorgeous gems of generosity throughout the Christian scriptures, like “God loves a cheerful giver,” “Give, and it will be given to you,” and of course the classic, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” These are verses so profound that many people quote them blithely, not realizing their sacred provenance.

To say nothing of the magnificent story told by Jesus of the “Good Samaritan,” which comes to us uniquely from the Lukan Evangelist, quite possibly the most poignant example of a secular humanist parable within the canon. As the tale is told, a certain man was waylaid while traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Two religious men passed by and did nothing to help, presumably to avoid complicating their important errands of piety. Yet a third man, a Samaritan in fact (read: religiously unorthodox and socially despised, sound familiar atheists?), sets aside his travels to tend to the man’s wounds and make arrangements for his care. If ever the champions of humanism needed an icon to revere, it would surely be this Samaritan.

Though they may be scripturally fortified with compassion, we can yet be skeptical that Christians reflect this same kind of generosity to practical effect. But the Barna Group is eager to point out that within the general public, only one out of every three individuals gave at least $1000 to non-profit charities, whereas four out of every five Evangelical Christians met this minimal charitable level. And when compared to atheists, the differences are even more striking: Evangelicals gave an average of $4260 to non-profits, while atheists gave an average of only $467. That’s a order of magnitude difference. And that’s embarrassing.

One might be temped to hold these Barna data at arms’ length, especially given the fact that George Barna himself is an Evangelical Christian. And yet as it happens, I’ve conducted my own research here in Dallas-Fort Worth, and in an unpublished survey I helped run in 2011, when the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason was compared to a local Methodist church, there was a similar order of magnitude difference in giving between the two groups. But perhaps we just coincidentally sent the survey to one of the wealthiest congregations in town, right? Well, we also compared the annual household incomes between the two groups, which turned out to be virtually indistinguishable. That is to say (not accounting for secular student organizations), both our local atheists and their Christian counterparts had the same relative ability to donate money.

So, why then is there a generosity gap?

I frankly don’t know. It’s certainly likely that if you subjected one group of people to regular inspirational talks that appealed to the highest ethical standards of their worldview, and then asked them to donate in front of their peers, you would probably see more systematic generosity than a comparable group that was told to simply give individually whenever the mood happened to strike. And yet there are some atheist organizations that do the former, without generating the same level of generosity that we typically see from churches.

That’s not to say there aren’t atheist organizations that are trying. At the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, there are regular cocktail party benefits, they adopt roads and lakeshores, they conduct food, blood, clothing, and virtually all other kinds of drives for all kinds of needy people, they cook dinner for HIV patients, volunteer at food banks, and help out with LGBT charities. They also regularly partner with other organizations in the DFWCoR, and encourage their members to join the Foundation Beyond Belief.

But as wonderful as those activities are, they’re still miles behind the average church. Most atheist organizations can’t even afford a building, to say nothing of professional staff, or the ability to sponsor outreach projects such as sending volunteers on emergency relief trips, building houses for the needy, running a soup kitchen, or any other kind of medium-to-large-scale charitable activity that churchgoers take for granted.

What will it take for atheists to approach the same level of generosity that our religious friends and neighbors manage with regularity? Again, I’m at a loss on this point, but I suspect that too many of the former group are needlessly skittish about systematic giving behaviors that remind them of the religious influences and patterns from which they’ve attempted to distance themselves. And it’s true that atheists may be able to rally every once in a while to make a big generous splash, but the real impact is made by the constant drip over a long period of time.

Look, the question of whether or not gods exist is interesting, and within a culture where theists enjoy the majority (for now), perhaps it’s costly enough to criticize those ideas which one finds problematic. But at some point we need to look hard at ourselves and the world around us, and ask ourselves the question of why, in a world without gods to make things better, aren’t we taking on the burden ourselves to build Heaven here on Earth?

At that point, perhaps the generosity gap will go away. I’m looking forward to it.

The Atheist Con

If you wanted to find diversity, community, and humanism at Skepticon 5, you had to walk next door.

I love atheist and skeptic conferences. I really do. There’s something exhilarating about pulling into a hotel parking lot and seeing regiments of marching fish, stepping into a hotel lobby and noticing heretical trinkets dangling from seemingly everyone, and sitting down to eat in a nearby restaurant where the faithful are an obvious minority. Especially for those who live South of the Mason-Dixon line, such occurrences are rare enough that the novelty alone is usually worth the price of admission.

Which is why I was surprised to return from Skepticon 5 (the “fifth-most Skepticon yet”) weighed down by profound disappointment.

Not because the organizers did a bad job – far from it. In fact, the event itself was a fantastic gathering, a testament to their Herculean efforts and organizational proficiency. In fact, I would daresay that this year’s convention was damn near equivalent to other atheist and skeptical events with longer and more professional pedigrees.

Which is precisely the problem.

I’ve gradually grown weary of the popular edutainment and personality-driven nature of these conventions. I suppose that for the newly-unchristened, the novelty of attendance is sufficient to sustain interest, in much the same way that one’s first discovery of manual-genital congress is stimulating enough to attenuate the desire for more meaningful interactions. Unfortunately, the two most meaningful talks of Skepticon 5 were consigned to the literal margins – James Croft‘s excellent discourse on the value of secular communities, and Tony Pinn‘s crucial explanation of the challenges in reaching out to ethnically non-privileged communities. The former was placed at the earliest position on Sunday (while most attendees and other speakers were still nursing the effects of the previous evening’s debauchery), and the latter was given the final position of that day (after the vast majority of attendees had evacuated Springfield out of logistical necessity).

Croft’s talk represented the humanist soul (for lack of a better word) of the atheist and skeptical movement. It’s easy enough (relatively speaking) to stroke one’s rationality and reargue the nonexistence of gods, the silliness of creationism, and even the value of feminism. But it takes a good deal more intellectual and ethical rigor to hash out the particulars of building real value-driven communities. Particularly for atheists and skeptics, who have a poor track record of creating proactive and harmonious groups online, to say nothing of their capacity for contention in meatspace. Without community, the best we have to offer is either the intellectual one-night-stand of conventions like Skepticon or a passport to the Great Online Troll Sanctuary, where clashing tribes band together around the glow of their iPad screens and cast virtual spears at anyone who speaks differently. What we need, Croft says, are real places where people can look each other in the eye, forge long-term friendships, and celebrate life’s milestones. Or, as my friend Alix put it slightly more pragmatically, “people I can invite to my daughter’s first birthday party.”

Pinn’s presentation, delivered to a fraction of the weekend’s attendees, was particularly poignant to me. Most atheist and skeptical conventions have done a reasonable job of increasing the visibility of women within the movement, but for those from ethnically non-privileged communities, it’s been another story. Surveying this year’s larger conventions, I note with particular disappointment that non-white speakers comprise an average of 12% of each event, while African-Americans make up only about 7% (with Dr. Pinn’s appearances contributing close to half of that amount). This is, in a word, UNACCEPTABLE. These numbers should be at least twice what they are now, or higher. Pinn pointed out that the atheist and skeptical movement has not attracted minority participants because it doesn’t proactively include them, and also because it doesn’t proactively engage with the interests of non-privileged communities. And this isn’t the first time a Skepticon audience heard this message – Debbie Goddard said essentially the same thing two years ago, but the organizers apparently didn’t listen. No wonder, then, that less than 1% of the attendees this year, as in years past, were from ethnically non-privileged communities.

And most distressing to me was the breathtaking dichotomy I witnessed on Friday and Saturday as Skepticon organized on one side of the Springfield Expo Center, while the local organization Friends Against Hunger held their first “Meals a Million” event to pack low-cost, nutritious meals for needy families around the world. There had been an offhand mention ahead of time by the Skepticon organizers that this event would be coinciding with their convention, and the suggestion was made that those who weren’t attending the Friday workshops or film festival might possibly consider volunteering, but there was no official partnership or significant promotion.

Standing outside the convention center Saturday morning while chatting with some Christian “protesters,” I noticed ever-growing groups of people entering the doors behind me while wearing shirts marked with their church’s logo. At first, I was impressed that there were church members, apparently in large numbers, coming to Skepticon. After walking inside, I was disappointed to find that the Christians were walking downstairs with the atheists, but then turning to walk the opposite direction. When I realized that the Christians were there to pack meals for the needy, while the atheists were there to purchase snarky T-shirts and congratulate themselves on their intellectual acuity, I was disappointed again. Disappointed in us. As I stood at the bottom of the convention staircase, Christians and atheists walking in opposite ethical directions, I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience join those selling “humanist” buttons without first acting like one.

And so, irony be damned, I stepped in line behind a group of middle-aged Lutheran women, because I wanted to spend some time with real humanists at Skepticon.

I don’t share this to brag (I only had time to work a couple hours before I had to meet back with my family), or to unreasonably condemn the Skepticon organizers and attendees. I understand, people traveled from far and wide to attend and speak and meet other atheists and skeptics. I did too. But the lack of practical and positive expressions of humanistic values within the Skepticon crowd should be addressed by this time next year. For example, the convention organizers could partner officially with Friends Against Hunger, or a local blood bank, or some other worthy cause. But there needs to be SOMETHING, otherwise the labels we pin on ourselves are as superficial and meaningless as the aluminum and plastic from which they’re made.

Which brings me back to Croft and Pinn, both (like Friends Against Hunger) kept to the periphery of the Skepticon experience (intentionally or otherwise). At his website, Croft says that he seeks to create communities that inspire people to “build a better future for humankind.” So do I, and so do (I presume) most of the Skepticon attendees, organizers, and speakers. Pinn said about his frustration with the ministry, that “what [he] was saying and preaching was not translating into ethical action.” How much more do those words also convict those of us who attended Skepticon primarily to go drinking and take pictures with our favorite bloggers?

It is time for atheist and skeptical conventions to aspire to more than this. It is no longer enough to trot out some well-known names, hand out trophies, and show everyone to the nearest bar. The time for self-congratulation is over. Until we take seriously the need for practical humanism, until we set aside our privilege to listen to our non-privileged brothers and sisters, we don’t deserve the warm and fuzzy feelings that we get on our way out of Springfield. It’s time to stop the circlejerk, and get our hands dirty planting real seeds of humanism.

Apologetics Now

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a new report confirming the trends we’ve been seeing for several years. Although Catholic adherence is pretty much unchanged at about a fifth of the population, the religiously unaffiliated, known as the Nones, are growing like crazy, apparently at the expense of Christian Protestants. In fact, the Protestants have just lost their majority in America, and in a couple years, there will be more Nones than there are Catholics. And this is a trend with a sharp demographic edge to it: among younger Millennials, one in three are Nones. For my son’s generation, if this trend continues, easily half of his friends and neighbors will be Nones.

This report, as with others that have concluded similar trends over the past decade, is widely heralded as good news for atheists and bad news for Christians. But some attenuation is necessary: although atheists (and agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, etc.) are included in the “Nones” designation, the former are a subset of the latter. Thus, many of the nones still retain some supernatural beliefs, including affinity for “spiritual” concepts, various forms of theism and deism, and even credulity in garden variety psychics, mediums, and newspaper astrology columns. However, in my opinion they’re much less disposed towards animosity against those who don’t believe in God at all. That is to say, I suspect that the Nones as an inclusive group will have much less of a problem with their son or daughter marrying an atheist, and even voting for an atheist for President.

As for the religious (read: Christian) organizations in this country, this trend does carry some concerning implications, at least inasmuch as they want to keep their adherence up and maintain the kind of cultural influence that they’ve enjoyed for, well, for a long-ass time. In response to the “New Atheism,” I’ve seen the rise of a “New Christianity,” which is just as new and homogenous as the godless socio-cultural movement that has brought us Four Horsemen, provocative advertising, and a robust grassroots community. In particular, there has been an increased theological polarization, typified by the widely different Mars Hill Churches in Grand Rapids (liberal) and Seattle (conservative), especially in regards to the doctrine of Hell. In addition, I’ve noted the rise of massive de-theologized churches, particularly the major megachurches like Prestonwood here in Dallas and Lakewood in Houston.

But another response, which is more popular among the religious denizens of the Internet than it is among the average “pew potato” (a term I borrow with gusto from Robert Price), is an embrace of Christian apologetics. As a Christian, I found such activities pointless – of course Christianity was true, why waste time defending it – but after my apostasy I encountered this realm anew and found unexpectedly kindred spirits on the other side of the theological divide. As such, I find myself perennially attracted to convergences of Christian apologetics, and when I heard several months ago that a Christian apologetics conference was to be held in Dallas, I registered almost immediately.

The scheduled speakers were the best of the best. The keynote speaker was to be William Lane Craig, who is currently the most widely-regarded living Christian apologist, as well as Greg Koukl, Frank Turek, and Ravi Zacharias. In addition to these, were local New Testament scholar Dan Wallace, John Stonestreet, and of course the head pastor of the host church, Todd Wagner.

I walked into Watermark Community Church on a dreary and rainy Saturday morning in Dallas. What took my breath away was the sheer enormity of the facility – the primary worship room holds about three thousand people I’ve been told, and there was overflow space on two different floors, both in a secondary auditorium upstairs that held several hundred, as well as a luxuriously well-appointed coffee shop (leather sofas as far as the eye could see), as well as outside on the patio scattered with wooden Adirondack furniture.

The place was frankly packed. Thousands of Christians (and at least one or two of the opposition) had assembled for the day, for a conference that was run more smoothly than just about any atheist conference I’ve attended, with more attendees, and no doubt half the effort. The megachurch model may not be your cup of tea, but it certainly has mass organization down to art form.

The event was billed as “Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors.” I noted with some disappointment that, for a conference dedicated to the “New Atheists,” there were none on the speaking roster, nor even any atheist or nonbeliever. Right off the bat, I found to be the a significant and egregious failure of the organizers: that it purported to give Christian attendees an accurate picture of atheist arguments, but without consulting any actual atheists. It would be just as unfortunate as if an atheist organization held a conference on Christian theology, headlined only by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other atheists. At least, according to the agenda, Zacharias’ talk (The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists) and Craig’s presentation (Richard Dawkins on Arguments for God’s Existence) promised some degree of focus on the stated purpose of the event.

Todd Wagner began the day with a call to action, arguing that Christianity is the cultural antithesis of modern America. As is typical of many apologetics events I’ve attended, Wagner’s target was not atheism but postmodernism, which demonstrated to me his profound and pitiable ignorance of the modern atheist and skeptical movement. He used his time to encourage the attendees to become active apologists, responding to cultural critics of Christianity with aggressive arguments rather than passive silence. “Don’t avoid having that conversation at the coffee shop,” he urged. “Don’t wish that you had Dr. Craig at the table with you, engage with Christianity’s critics on your own.” And yet I couldn’t help but wonder if teaching people to argue with postmodern strawmen was really going to be an effective strategy.

Greg Koukl, of the apologetic ministry “Stand to Reason,” and author of the book “Tactics,” was no stranger to me, and indeed I’ve taken him to task directly for the errors he’s made when talking about stem cell research (since ignored). Koukl continued Wagner’s theme of Christianity being “under assault” by the culture at large, and downplayed the wide variety of criticisms as coming from people who may be gifted with intelligence, but who are spiritually stupid. In his available time, Koukl engaged with more atheist strawmen, under the guise of presenting the “worst” arguments against Christianity. I, for one, really wished that he had spent his time contending with the best arguments, but such was the case. Koukl brought out the postmodern horse for another enthusiastic drubbing, declared that Christians should no longer use the word “faith” to describe their worldview, and took shelter from ad hominem attacks on Christian “stupidity.” Now, although these kinds of attacks may be common (and ancient, going back at least as far to the second century with Celsus), these certainly don’t qualify as arguments in my mind, bad or otherwise. But there is a fair point to be made when Christian adherence and atheism can be predicted, at least in aggregate, by educational attainment. Rather than engaging with this point, Koukl danced behind accusations of name-calling, another in a growing series of lost opportunities during the conference.

Dan Wallace was the next speaker, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. As a New Testament Greek scholar, Wallace is beyond comparison, and has been involved with several recent Bible translations, as well as several debates with Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. Through rehashing his debate with Ehrman last year at SMU, Wallace argued that the manuscript evidence of the New Testament is better than any other ancient document, and provides sufficient reliability to support current orthodox doctrine. Although interesting, as one side of a debate it didn’t really help the audience evaluate the evidence critically, nor did it hold my attention to any significant degree. Instead, I met up with an atheist friend of mine who’d come to the conference as well, and we headed out to the spacious patio with box lunches to make some Christian friends.

We ended up settling on a large table that was occupied by a young pregnant woman named Tricia, who was pleasantly shooing other people away from the other seats she was trying to save for her husband, Daniel, and their friends. When they arrived, I munched on turkey and wheat while making superficial pleasantries. Eventually, Daniel asked if I was a member at Watermark, or if I’d come from a different church. “None,” I replied, “I’m an atheist, here to soak in all the apologetics that I can.” To his credit, this didn’t seem to faze Daniel at all, and he was curious to know more. His first concern was about whether or not I was an actual atheist or just an agnostic (because, obviously, one would have to know everything to be an atheist). I gently corrected him on that point, and explained the basic differences in terminology, from atheist to agnostic, as well as freethought and humanism. It pained me terribly to find someone at a conference focusing on atheism who was so overtly ignorant on the basics of that definition, as well as its surrounding philosophy. I was able to share a bit more about my religious background, and the arguments that I found particularly compelling against Christianity, but the lunch hour swiftly drew to a close.

Next up was Frank Turek, who is the co-author with Norman Geisler of the uncontroversially-named book “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.” Turek has a dynamic stage presence to be sure, but also seems… uninterested in inheriting the earth, so to speak (someone with a less charitable assessment would simply write him off as an insufferable jerk). His assigned topic was the Problem of Evil, which is my personal favorite, and indeed is really the only problem worth talking about. His first move was in disproving the idea that the existence of evil disproves the existence of God. I’m right there with him generally, but he made a rather obtuse argument along the way, claiming that in fact the existence of evil is proof that there is a God. For if there is evil, there must be good. And if there is good, there must be a God. QED. He then went on to challenge the idea that God should protect Christians from evil and suffering, by pointing out first that God didn’t promise to do so, and that suffering is a good thing anyway. After all, Jesus suffered, and we want to be like Jesus, right?

He then addressed the question of why God doesn’t just stop evil in general by countering with the Free Will defense. That is, if God stopped me from murdering a million people he’d be interfering with my free will, so it’s just better for everyone that I go ahead with my genocidal plans. This argument of course does nothing to address natural evil, and further I find it to be invalidated by the concept of Heaven, in which free will ostensibly exists coincident with a sinless environment. Finally, Turek claimed that there is a purpose for evil in the world, because the ultimate purpose is for everyone to know Christ, and evil and suffering are motivations to bring us closer to Him. So it all works out in the end, and we don’t need to worry about six year old kids getting cancer because God needs more converts. All in all, a pretty disappointing presentation, at least on my assessment.

Then, suddenly in his last few minutes Turek took a bizarre turn into political issues, urging all the attendees to read the Manhattan Declaration (which had been signed by Todd Wagner) and get involved politically to support Christian values (read: the Republican Party) during this year’s general election. It was a strange departure from his assigned topic, but it did admittedly segue into the next talk by John Stonestreet, a Fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and host of “The Point” radio show and podcast. Stonestreet’s presentation was a focus on our American culture, and how far removed it has become from Christian values. This was another one that I largely skipped, although I noted with some interest how little he referred to the New Atheist movement, and preferred to rail against the acceptance of homosexuality and religious critics in general.

The penultimate presentation was from Ravi Zacharias. I was really looking forward to seeing Zacharias speak, as he was the only notable apologist that I hadn’t yet seen in person. His talk at least claimed to address the New Atheists, but I didn’t see any of that in the performance I witnessed that day. Rather than a coherent defense of Christianity, Zacharias rambled and mumbled from one topic to then next, first criticizing secularism in very general terms, then pluralism, and then skepticism. Connections between these concepts were tenuous, aside from the fact that each were bad, and that each were causing the degradation of society by distancing it from Christian values. Somehow, with these three concepts loose in our culture, we have lost any sense of shame, any capacity for reason, and any sense of meaning. I’m sure it made sense to Zacharias, and I hope that it resonated with the other attendees, because to me (sad to say) it appeared to be someone just on the cusp of senility.

While disappointing, even Zacharias couldn’t quite compare to my utter disgust with the conference’s finale. William Lane Craig, who along with Todd Wagner was the architect of this conference, brought us a debate with an actual New Atheist, no less than Richard Dawkins. Or, maybe not an actual New Atheist. More like a virtual New Atheist. Or, well, a non-existent one. Because William Lane Craig debated an empty chair that was supposed to stand in for Richard Dawkins. Just like Clint Eastwood did to Obama at the Republican National Convention. In fact, that’s where he got the idea. An idea that was, in Craig’s mind, somehow a good idea to repeat. And then he proceeded to lecture an imaginary Dawkins about the Kalaam Cosmological Argument or some other such nonsense, I don’t really know, because I really wasn’t paying attention at that point. I was watching, dumbfounded, while Bill Craig, the most highly-respected Christian apologist in all the land, debated an empty chair in a conference that he himself had organized.

Now, before I get too carried away, what were the positives of this conference? Well, it brought the issues of apologetics to the forefront of the membership of a large and somewhat influential church here in Dallas, even if it was a bit poorly executed in terms of content. But I’d also say that given the tremendous response in terms of attendance, there’s a substantial audience for these topics in mainstream American churches, even nondenominational megachurches, which may not be populated exclusively by pew potatoes. And that, if nothing else, is encouraging because it presents me, the DFW Coalition of Reason, and anyone else who is interested with the conflict between faith and reason with a fertile population of Christians who are hungry for something more than just repetitive worship music and cherry-picked scriptural platitudes.

In the end, however, nothing else really captures my assessment of the conference better than Craig debating an imaginary Dawkins. Craig, Todd Wagner, and the folks at Watermark had an excellent opportunity to really help their members engage with the New Atheism, if only they’d thought to invite some, you know, actual atheists to the party. And Dallas is the perfect place for it – we have an incredibly active Coalition of Reason here, with as many as three thousand nonbelievers in our ranks, the vast majority of whom are former Christians. If Craig and Wagner had really wanted to learn about atheism, we’d have been more than happy to help. And I really do think they need the help: after absorbing this conference, if the Christian attendees think they’re prepared to engage with the atheists that I know in town, they are woefully misinformed.

Indeed, an atheist friend of mine who regularly attends the Watermark “Great Questions” class asked his Christian classmates (all of whom had attended the conference) the next Monday if they even knew what a “New Atheist” was. None of them had any clue. One wonders if the same could be said of Todd Wagner and Bill Craig.

If anything, this conference provided them with just enough information about apologetics to give them the confidence to go out and get exposed to more persuasive arguments on the atheist side. I suppose I should thank Watermark for the long-term boost in our local atheist contingent, but that’s really not what I’m after. What I would be most appreciative of is being taken seriously enough by local religious leaders that they recognize that most of the the people active in the local atheist movement are people who’ve left the very pews that these leaders preach at every Sunday. Until religious doubt is given a fair assessment and sufficient respect by apologists and other religious leaders, I’m afraid that megachurches like Watermark are fighting a losing battle. Because as the next generation comes up through the ranks, as the Pew Research indicates, the number of people who think religious organizations like Watermark have the answers is going to dwindle into insignificance.

Podcast cross-posted from Apologia

A Conversation With A Gay Christian

This last Friday night afforded me the opportunity to hang out with my best friend and his co-workers at The Dubliner on Greenville. I had the pleasure of meeting some cool new people, including a married lesbian couple. I don’t get this opportunity very often so I wanted to not only get to know my friend’s co-workers, but also see what I could learn and put some of my recent thinking on this subject to the test.

I had a brief conversation with one of the girls in which I minced no words explaining that I needed a better understanding of the issue of homosexuality and marriage, particularly regarding its relationship to Christianity. I did not lay it on too thick since I don’t ever want to “use” anyone just to get information and, since we had just met, I didn’t want to be a tool. We saw eye-to-eye on several things and didn’t take the conversation very far. I made a friend and was happy with that (she also let me check out her new iPhone 5 since mine had not arrived yet.)

Later on that evening, I had a chance to talk for quite a while with her spouse. I could not have anticipated this kind of discussion in all my life. This girl was raised Christian and still wanted to follow Jesus with all her heart, soul, and mind. I admitted my ambivalence but made it clear that judgement is not my thing and that I would rather communicate love in areas that aren’t as clear as many of us think than to alienate anyone. What I did not expect was that she empathized with my ambivalence. She didn’t know what to think, either.

So there we were—two people trying to figure out how to best follow Jesus. Both of us more repentant in some areas than others. Both of us ruminating on the mercy of God extending to every Christian who is not now and never will be fully repentant (at least not enough to stop sinning.) I told her many things that night, but the last thing I said to her was, “Don’t give up.” I hope that even an atheist having a conversation with her, seeing how much she loves Jesus, would tell her the same thing. That a Christian, who isn’t sure about what Scripture teaches on the subject (which we discussed for a while—anyone who thinks it’s as clear as many say it is has not done their exegetical or historical homework, or stopped when enough evangelical writers confirmed what they already wanted to think) would tell her the same thing.

Why do we feel the need to “win” this battle? Why do we want to levy political help to force our point? It pains me to think that another believer (who, in all fairness, is highly likely to be much more faithful than I in so many other areas) would do anything less than communicate God’s mercy, love, and grace toward us all. How repentant does someone need to be before you judge them worthy of your reiteration of God’s love for them? Does the cross fail to be an example at that point? Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” about the people who knowingly put him to death. Yet we assume that those who cannot imagine being anything other than gay somehow have a fuller knowledge and “know what they do” to the point where we’d rather win some apologetical battle than communicate the depth of the mercy and love of Christ as shown on the cross.

I can’t take that pill anymore. I’ve done my homework. I’ve weighed these issues carefully. I keep listening with the knowledge that I could very well be wrong. But until I have some face-to-face with God about the less-clear issues wherein He blesses my hermeneutic, I think I’ll go with what all Christians know is crystal clear: that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient, and that it shows God’s love to every one of us who is not fully repentant, and that it’s our responsibility to God and to others to communicate that.

Christians and Homosexuality—Part II

Historically, Christians have lost in the public arena. That is how it all began, in fact, with the greatest loss, the death of Jesus of Nazareth. His policies were not forced or voted upon to be implemented. He did not rally like-minded people for His cause. He gave up, lost, humbled himself. He loved while still proclaiming his message.

What would it cost a Christian to love without pretense? We hear of our offenses against those whom we invited to this or that social function if only to “witness” to them. Our message is so great we belie its patience and humility through our forced “boiling down” of the message and trickery. What if we gave up this battle against homosexual unions? What would it really cost us?

We tire of “the left” preaching tolerance when it seems to have tolerance only with its like-minded constituents, which is agreement, not tolerance. Yet we pretend to accept everyone with our gospel message while declaring war on them. Are we afraid that we don’t possess enough love? That God can’t love people despite their sin? Are we so sin-free that complete repentance is demanded of everyone else before we will give them an opportunity?

I want to take things a step further. What do we lose even if homosexuality is merely a preference? What battle are we really fighting? When did the gospel—allegedly our greatest responsibility—take a backseat to the issue of American citizens’ rights to homosexual civil unions? I ask because I don’t see the stand against intoxication, which is already legal. I don’t see the stand against obesity, which is already legal.

The point is not to give up and allow anything and everything. The point is to pick our battles against the right things. We are battling sin; not homosexuals. How much greater would our message of hope and love be if we conceded all the ground we feel entitled to in order to present a humble, weakened, compassionate, understanding Gospel? What impact has the gospel had in our lives that we attribute to Jesus campaigning and dividing the country on political issues? None—we proclaim his humility, his love, his willingness to die with the sinners and become one himself.

Can we still point sinful people toward the gospel? I certainly hope so. The world is sick and Jesus is its healer. Sinful people need to be pointed toward Jesus. We don’t need any more people being pointed toward homosexuals and pretending they are the enemy. We don’t need any more bad logic that says allowing homosexual unions means not preaching truthfully about sin. Do we really need to identify everyone’s individual sins before we can feel good about preaching the gospel? We are all born into sin, into a broken system. Suppose you do “fix” that gay girl or guy, what about their pride? What about their lust? What about their anger? What about their idolatry? What about their greed? Do you also need to beat them over the head about those things? Or can you stand firm in the truth of the Gospel that all are under the power of sin and all need freedom from it?

Picture this: you support homosexual unions and can tell a gay couple that you fought for their civil rights because you believe in their humanity and dignity as such; not as trickery or a “foot in the door,” but as a true display of humble love. You then let them know that you have tried to love as Jesus did, by humbling yourself even where you weren’t sure or disagreed; not to add another church-goer but because such a message of love ought to be proclaimed. You refused to dehumanize them because you love them. That is tolerance. You might have been sure that homosexual activity was sinful, but how sure were you that you needed to oppose it like you did? How sure were you that it was “the” issue it has become? How sure were you that you spent as much time sharing the gospel or sending money to impoverished people?

How much time did Jesus spend condemning people and fighting against their public rights?

How much time did Jesus spend welcoming outcasts, feeding the hungry, proclaiming hope despite sinfulness?

Christians and Homosexuality—Part I

I say “Christians and Homosexuality” instead of “Christianity and Homosexuality” or “Christ and Homosexuality” because I cannot speak on behalf of the latter two with any real confidence. I can suppose, derive, conclude, and assume; but none of those things would prove official enough. I can, however, speak on behalf of myself—a Christian—as well as on behalf of those Christians with whom I have spoken. Perhaps “Some” should go at the front of the title, but I’d like to retain enough gravity without the presumption.

Talking Past One Another

Christians who understand homosexuality as a personal preference do not understand why such a thing should carry so much weight. Of all the personal preferences humans have, why should this one make the headlines, alter legislature, or assume civil rights status?

Others, including some Christians, who understand homosexuality as equal to race or color do not understand why opponents would cite an ancient text in defense of limiting the civil rights of a group of human beings.

Do you see where we talk past one another? Both sides have a responsibility that each too infrequently assumes.

For Christians opposed to homosexual practice (as opposed to attraction without practice only) there needs to be a realization that, throughout its history, Christianity has been willing to bend and flex with science without risking biblical authority. With six years of formal exegetical training under my belt, I am fully aware of the limits within which the exegete must work. In other words, the Bible can only say so much and we can only make so much room for interpretation before we run out of textual warrant for the various interpretations we make. This does not mean that anything goes, or that anything is possible, nor that we cannot be fairly firm in our convictions about what the Bible teaches. It does mean, however, that we cannot be as reactionary. If patience is a fruit of the Spirit, our public presence should reflect that. If we are truly confident that God’s authority is behind the Bible, then we need not worry.

We need to decide what is really at stake in this discussion. I have yet to hear of such phobia, anger, outrage, and push for legislation over divorce—an infinitely more devastating problem than homosexuality could ever pose to traditional marriage. Two gay guys getting married has absolutely nothing to do with the sanctity of my marriage. It just doesn’t. Me not loving my wife like Christ loves the church? Me feeding sexual urges outside of my marriage? Where are the picketers for that? Where’s the presidential statement against that? Until I see people lined up outside of court houses protesting another divorce between two church-goers, I’ll not take seriously anyone’s “defense” of the sanctity of marriage or arguments against homosexual unions outside of those same court houses.

For others, including some Christians, defending homosexuality as a civil rights issue, please exercise patience and good judgment and take the time to actually explain things. Emotional outbursts and marches and parades certainly bring awareness and have their place; but they seldom teach anything to anyone who doesn’t already support the cause. They serve as public debates wherein the opposition hears no real argument and is given no opportunity to offer a real rebuttal. I know countless Christians, including myself, who are all-ears on this issue, waiting for good reason to overturn what was nearly universal opinion until relatively recently—that homosexuality was a merely a preference. Why? Because we strive to be people marked by love. Jesus was infinitely patient with the social outcasts of His day and we want to be just like Jesus. He also stood for things. Many things. So, we will stand where we need to while still being loving.

Christians are not bigots or homophobes for trying to be faithful to the God of the universe. If you believe that such a god exists, and act in accordance with what you think that god expects, then you are acting consistently as well as intelligently. No, really, if you think a god is “out there” and its opinion is the ultimate one and that there are consequences for siding against that god, anyone expecting you to be hypocritical about that is a fool. Granted, being faithful to God often takes forms that are anything but faithful and indeed bring shame and disgrace to the name of Jesus. But on what planet could you really lump together Billy Graham and the hateful punks of that “church” in Kansas?

That said, the argument against limiting freedom to a group of people because of their sexuality is a solid one, if indeed that sexuality is not a simple preference. If it is a simple preference, like ice cream or shoes, then it does not deserve the impact it’s having. If it does, then NAMBLA actually has a point (God forbid.) But be more proactive in educating people about the issue. Do you have solid scientific evidence that supports your view? Great! Then act consistently within the worldview to which you adhere and present your case on your terms. Holding on to what you know to be solid evidence while expecting others to bend to your emotional whims is not only irrational but ineffective. There are many who will listen, but not to nonsensical ravings. The Christian worldview has quite a history of being compatible with various philosophical systems, scientific theories, and sociological data. What would a truly “humanist” worldview look like if it promoted true tolerance and found solutions for bringing the myriad facets of humanity under one umbrella without the destructive hand-waving anger of a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens? Anyone can be angry and exclude others; but true peacemakers appreciate the mess for what it is and work to bring the messy into the fold of the allegedly neat, which is what Jesus did.

In conclusion, each side talks past the other and both are too seldom willing to sit and listen, to actually consider the other viewpoints and maybe give a little ground here and there. Are we so committed to the “grey” areas that the only means of arriving there are “black-and-white” battles? And what if the evidence points the other way, for either side? Will that side be willing to admit a mistake? If you’re reading this and are already convinced that homosexuality is not a preference, that this is a civil rights issue, that Christians not on your side are dead wrong, how willing are you to back down if the evidence points the other way? Are you hanging your hat on evidence or on something else? As a Christian who believes in the authority of the God who somehow inspired the original words of Scripture, I’m willing to let some things go. I’m willing to admit wrong and to let God be God where I cannot be. I’m willing to let two gay guys have a wedding and get tax breaks and visit each other in the hospital. But don’t expect me to simply take your word for things, and I won’t expect you to believe the things I do.

On the Virtue of Disagreement

For most of my young life, I went with the flow. I was a good kid, following orders, obeying my parents, doing well in school. I can count on one hand the number of times I actually had any discipline issues with authority figures.

But midway through high school, I decided to become a contrarian. Clearly, intentionally, and without hesitation. Now, I know that this is in no way unique, but it was a watershed moment for my own development, and I still carry the tendency even today for my brain to start itching ever so slightly if I haven’t had a good dustup in a long while. I adopted the attitude of “if I haven’t pissed off someone today, I haven’t been doing my job.”

Things came to a head when a classmate of mine, a girl for whom I’d previously harbored a secret crush, discovered feminism. She began to test the volume of her roar, and I took that as a signal to respond. Crossing swords over our adolescence-addled understanding of gender theory in English class, in the instrument locker, and at the lunchtable couldn’t have been more ridiculous or less important, but it was FUN.

At least, it was up until the moment of desperate frustration when she said to me, “Where do you get the right to your opinion?”

Whatever that opinion may have been, it’s been lost to the mists of memory. But the question remains, stirring up subtle feelings of shock and anger even today. Where did I get the right to challenge her, to express an opinion that contradicted her, to tell her that she was wrong?

Years later, my opinions, such as they were, have changed dramatically. With regard to feminism, I find myself much more sympathetic to the point of view that she was attempting to articulate at the time, even if my philosophical presuppositions have shifted dramatically from where hers (and mine) used to be (and, I presume, hers still are). I was wrong to think that, as I maintained even through college, the role of women in society should be determined by the writings held sacred by a particular religious community.

Some years back, I went online and searched for a letter I wrote to the student newspaper of my college. Published in the “opinion” section, it was titled “Women are Gifts from God,” and established (so I thought) my utmost respect for a class of people that was so favored by the divine that boundaries had been erected for their own protection. My mother thought it was lovely and shared it with her friends, physical evidence of my upstanding religiosity and faithfulness. A fellow student published a contradictory letter the following day, titled “Women are More than Gifts,” which called out my pious chauvinism and deftly deflated my spiritual ego. Though at the time I was angry and offended, my apostasy has significantly changed that perspective. A few years ago, I found my opponent’s email address and sent her a decade-belated note of appreciation, noting that her criticism at the time had finally been recognized and valued.

As an apostate, being wrong is a part of my history, a part of my identity. The realization that I was truly, seriously, emphatically wrong on one of the most important questions of the human condition is always with me. And I think for many people, there is a significant tendency towards anxiety of error, which is why those in psychology spend time studying the strong effects of confirmation bias.

I can see why that would be the case. Being wrong doesn’t just mean “incorrect” or “untrue.” We use the same word to mean “unjust,” “dishonest,” and “immoral.” The latest billboard campaign by the Freedom From Religion Foundation makes use of this double-meaning to antagonize the Catholic Church.

An erstwhile Catholic, now apostate.

And I think that people in general tend to internalize that second meaning of the word, so much so that to be wrong about something, even sincerely wrong, is to be thought of as being a bad person in some way. But being trained as a scientist, I had to accept being wrong as a fact of professional life. Being wrong about any given hypothesis is, scientifically speaking, just as interesting as being right. And I think that can be true about life in general.

Which is why I’m so in favor of disagreement.

Having a different opinion than someone else, coming to different conclusions, applying a different interpretation – this is essential. Without this interplay, the crossing of rhetorical swords, there’s virtually no chance of change. Assumptions go unchallenged, presuppositions remain undisturbed, and our personal paradigms rest sleepily in our subconscious.

Don’t think that I don’t like to be right. Of course I do, just like we all do, but I don’t want to be right by personal fiat. I want to be right if and only if what I think corresponds with reality. And the best way to test my rightness is to see if I’m wrong. It’s my hope that championing disagreement not as a personal slight, but as an intellectual virtue, will lead to the edification of us all.

So please, let’s agree to disagree. OK?

Take Some Wine for Your Demon

Sneeze.

“Bless you!”

“I don’t have a demon, but thanks.”

The “history” for the phrase “bless you” following a sneeze, cough, or other symptom is assumed by many to reflect the ignorance of Puritans or whatever other Christian group gets the blame for the allegedly ill-informed nicety. The way I’ve most commonly heard it described goes like this: “Did you know that they [the ‘they’ is never backed-up] said ‘bless you’ because they thought there was a demon inside you?”

The truth is that prior to widely available medical treatment, a sneeze or cough could mean you’re going to die in a few weeks. The common cold used to kill people. Saying, “Bless you” is a well-wishing, a pronouncement of God’s “blessing” on your life since you were probably going to die in a puddle somewhere. Ironically, famous 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards died from the small pox vaccine. He accepted its use because he understood—along with nearly everyone else at the time—that bodily ailments are not chalked-up to demon-possession.

We can even go further back than that to the New Testament, wherein Paul advises Timothy, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim 5.23.) Obviously Paul, as well as Timothy and anyone else who read the letter aloud in a 1st or 2nd century Sunday morning gathering, did not think Timothy’s “ailments” had anything to do with demon-possession.

As a matter of fact, it wasn’t even assumed that seizures or any other violent physical or mental ailment must be a demon. Jesus healed several people of physical illness and said nothing about demons. Demon-possession was a very specific thing. Someone could have an illness similar to what a demon-possessed person had but not be demon-possessed.

What makes this discussion even more fascinating to me is the fact that there are those today in Christian circles who attribute everything to some spiritual malady. We occasionally read about them in the news—they let their kid(s) die because medicine won’t fix spiritual issues or is of the devil or isn’t putting faith in God or something. There’s a very good reason why these are so few and far between, and it sure ain’t because they’re some extra-blessed group walking through the “narrow gate.” It’s because they’re ignorant people who have shunned not only medicine and basic biology/psychology, but also the rules of grammar and normal biblical interpretation.

Some Christians are less strict and happily find remedies for physical ailments that anyone else would use. But even some of these folks are unwilling to seek counseling, psychotherapy, psychiatry, etc. They’ve accepted a sharp dualism between mind and body that excludes any space-time involvement, assuming that only spiritual healing can bring about mental healing.

A third group makes things a little tougher. This group is fine with medicine and psychology, but groups everything under the “sin” rubric. In one sense I’m totally on board with this. In another sense I respectfully disagree. If everything was affected by the Fall of humanity, then everything is—in that sense—spiritually wounded and in need of spiritual healing. However, it isn’t necessary to assume that the means or processes have to originate from or actualize in some metaphysical, unobservable, unrepeatable way. In other words, if God is the giver and sustainer of my life, then allowing me to continue to seek professional help for my various psychological issues means that he is still the provider and source, but the way this works out doesn’t have to be in some metaphysical realm. The healing doesn’t have to be “miraculous” in order to find its ultimate source in God. Adam and Eve were instructed to actually do things; not sit around and wait for God to put everything in front of them. He provided the basics, but they were expected to continue the project as image-bearers of a creative God.

If Timothy’s ailments were alleviated by wine, Timothy can still thank God for the wine’s availability, and for Paul’s advice, and for the processes that make wine do the great things it does. Clearly, neither Paul nor Timothy expected some sort of “instant healing” that came from nowhere and defied all normal explanation. Why does Paul say “I discipline my body and make it my slave” (1 Cor 9.27) if he was expecting any and all help to only come in a mystical way from the Holy Spirit?

Can God heal someone in that way? Well, yeah—he’s God. Are we all to expect that? Not at all. In fact, there’s a joke that illustrates my point well:

A man was sailing in the ocean when suddenly his boat sank. As he tread water he prayed for God to rescue him. After a while, another boat came by and offered help.
“No, thanks” the man said. “I’m waiting for God.”

A second boat came by, offering help, which the man turned away. A third a final boat came by and the man insisted that God will rescue him and that’s what he will wait for.

The man drowns and finds himself face to face with God. “Hey, God!” he says. “Glad to be here but I gotta ask: why didn’t you save me out there?”

God responds, “I sent three boats. What more did you want?”

I have several issues I’m trying to work through right now. I don’t want to pretend that they are only psychological—I see how sin works in myself and others and I just can’t deny it in light of such evidence. But I also don’t want to shun every tool available to me and assume that God is going to just sort of “do something” to make everything go away. If he does—great! But sitting around and repeating myself in my prayers not only goes directly against Scripture (Eph 5.16 & Matt 6.7,) it’s a waste of the time and resources God has given me, which would make me a poor steward (Matt 25.) I’d rather not add more sins to the trouble my sin causes me. Instead, I’ll go see a professional, and thank God that I can.

The Trouble With Women

“The church is a terrible engine of oppression, especially as concerns women.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a local megachurch’s men’s conference, and report back about the goings-on there. One of the things that I noticed was the servile-and-separate role that was played by the women in the congregation, who cooked and cleaned and hand-delivered ice cream sandwiches to guys watching other guys punch each other in the mouth.

(Yes, this happened in a church. It’s also, not coincidentally, the same church where the pastor bedded his wife on the roof and tried to arrange a zoo for Easter this year. So, you know, it’s that kind of church.)

To me, the way that these gender roles were accepted and presumably defined by the organizers was icky at best, and downright insulting at worst. But more importantly, I was probably the only person out of the thousand-or-so attendees who thought so. And just over a decade ago, I would most likely not have noticed them at all. As a young Christian, I happily accepted the typical gender dynamics of the religious culture (Man as the “head,” Woman as the “helpmeet”), and was particularly proud of myself for writing an opinion piece for my college paper that lauded women as precious “gifts from God.”

After my apostasy those views changed dramatically, to say the least. My dating patterns changed as well, and I began to seek out women whose courage and strength mirrored and transcended my own. I even married the best of the bunch. As I became involved in the atheist community, two things were clear: there were similar women to be found, but few had a voice. One of the first things that I did was to take an organization led by two men, and create a directing board populated by equal numbers of men and women. When founding the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, the original board was overwhelmingly female. In fact, I was the only male director until the first official election, when a more equivalent balance resumed.

This was not something that was particularly orchestrated, or a long-running conspiracy to tinker with the gender balance of a local organization. Rather, it was an instinctive desire (shared by many in addition to myself) to make the local secular community welcoming to both sexes. And the easiest way to do that, in my own humble opinion, is to find female leaders, put them in charge, and get the fuck out of their way.

This strategy has paid massive dividends. Across the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, the gender distribution is 60% male, 40% female. This remains consistent in both of the largest member organizations, the Metroplex Atheists and the aforementioned FoFDallas. Not coincidentally, both of those organizations also have leadership boards that are at least 40% female. (We’re still working on racial and ethnic diversity.)

That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear about sexism in the atheist community at large, which has been an unfortunately recurring theme over the past few years. Last year’s “Elevatorgate” incident boiled over the atheist blogosphere like nothing I’d ever seen before (although the FoFDallas did an excellent job analyzing and contextualizing the issues locally). This year, it appears to be another minor comment in the wake of the Women in Secularism conference (a landmark event which will hopefully not be overshadowed by the brewing controversy). Instead of the intrepid Rebecca Watson advising potential suitors to avoid late-night elevator propositions, this time around it’s Jen McCreight who let slip some inside baseball about icky male speakers.

Yes, it’s disappointing. But it’s important. And here’s why.

To my own great discredit, I’ve been privy to some of the same advice that Jen received (although couched in a different context), and it didn’t occur to me that this would be a concern to women. Not even once. Oh, sure, I thought “ew, gross” to myself a few times, and made a mental checklist of which speakers I did and did not want to associate with, but that’s as far as my concern went. I suppose that’s about what would be expected from someone with my level of societal privilege, but frankly that’s not good enough.

I should be held to a higher standard. We all should. And I offer my gratitude to Jen for (unknowingly) raising my consciousness about this issue. I’ll never look at it the same way again.

If organizations within the secular movement want to represent men and women equally, then they’ll need to stand as strongly on that principle as they do on any other issue. Don’t talk about advancing humanism if you can’t provide an environment where women feel safe. I suspect that conferences and conventions are more at risk than local organizations; people tend to act with less social restraint when they’re on the road, I’ve observed. So if it’s the case that you know what I know and Jen knows (and presumably other insiders know), please make a point to disinvite those individuals to your next event. I know I will, attendance be damned – the secular community does not exist for the purpose of organizing conventions, and we don’t need conventions to exist as a community.

If we in the secular community are truly serious about providing a counterpoint to the perceived oppression of women by religious institutions, then we’d damned sure better act like it. The next secular event I attend or organize will have a clear anti-harassment policy or it won’t happen. Simple as that.