Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Reply to Bob Hypes' Article: "Religion and How I lost It"

The following article was published in atheist Farrell Till's The Skeptical Review (1995, Number One). I will notify Hypes and/or Till or someone else connected to this magazine about this reply, and anyone is welcome, of course, to counter-reply. Mr. Hype's words will be in blue. His article appears here in its entirety.
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"Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." These lyrics constitute one of my earliest memories of religious instruction or the concept of religion. They may formulate the base experience for many others as well.

One would expect a very young child to be taught in this way. And of course this particular song is well-known as being a sort of "child's hymn." So what? When children grow up, one would expect them to be a bit more sophisticated. St. Paul talks about moving from milk to solid meat. The very subtle implication, expanded less subtly throughout this article, is that Christians remain on the level of an infant in terms of the intellectual vigor of their religion. Granted, many (even a great many) do, from apathy or misinformation or the bankruptcy of religious liberalism or societal pressure against faith, but Christianity is not intrinsically childish or juvenile or unsophisticated. I think the more sophisticated atheists are well aware of this, and hence a cynic (or at least a critic) might submit that they dwell on "fundamentalists" or "young earth creationists" in the attempt to ridicule and dismiss all forms of Christianity (and to rationalize their own disavowal of it). This is, of course, a straw man, as these groups represent only a tiny portion of Christianity today, and historically.

Even if the song itself does not elucidate such a memory, the concept implied in these lyrics may. This may comprise the primary religious training of the preschool child, a training based on unqualified love directed from this brotherly figure, Jesus, to the lowly little child, a source of warmth and comfort, a contrast to the child's own fragility.

And what is wrong with that, as far as it goes? The child clings to its parents for the same reason. By analogy, it is not unreasonable to suppose that there may be a supreme being (I argue from initial plausibility, not any sort of demonstration at this early stage) Who serves as father and/or mother to all of humanity. It is not immediately absurd to speculate in such a manner. Beyond even the infant / parent relationship, most married men will say that "I couldn't have done so-and-so without the support of my wife." We all need such human support. So if that is true on a human level, it may be on a cosmic level as well. This is not as silly a notion as atheists make out.

Indeed, psychologist Paul Vitz has shown a close correlation and connection between a great many famous atheists' bad relationships with their earthly fathers and their atheism itself. They are projecting their domestic situations onto the universe and theology. This might be called a "reverse crutch" argument. It turns the tables on one of the most-beloved "arguments" against theism: that it is a mere psychological crutch based on feelings of relative helplessness in the face of a cruel universe, etc.


No matter where we go or what we do the rest of our lives, that image will remain in some part of our being. It may be the one feeling that is hardest to shake when we grow to question and doubt this religion called Christianity.

Precisely. I am answering as I read, and I was almost sure the author would argue that the childlike sentiments in "Jesus loves me" would set the tone for a lifetime of Christianity. Again, it may for some fundamentalists or misinformed and underinformed Christians of any stripe (Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) but this does not disprove Christianity. The initial rejoinder to this indirect "argument against Christianity by virtue of testimony," then, is simple: "one does not refute Christianity or religion generally-speaking by recourse to a warped, simplistic, minority expression of it. The sub-group does not represent the entire group, or the worldview." The criticism of the sub-group would serve fine if the subject matter were "fundamentalism," but ostensibly the topic is the much larger "religion," and the explanation for why it is untenable and unworthy of belief by rational men. Thus, it is wholly insufficient for its purpose. Either the author doesn't comprehend these points of logic, or he wishes to merely explain his own gross intellectual deficiencies and ignorance in matters of religion, in which case the article is wrongly titled (being much more about himself than about religion per se). I don't claim that he is being merely a clever propagandist, utilizing illogical axioms for his purposes (but this would be a possibility, too).

We next learn that God is the creator of all that we behold and all that we will never understand. He is the grandfather many of us never knew or an extension of the grandfather on whose knee we sat when young.

I see nothing intrinsically implausible or unreasonable in that, per the above. Atheists are the ones who are more irrational, by dismissing the possibility or existence of God simply because their earthly fathers were scoundrels. One bad father has nothing whatsoever to do with the classic philosophical question of God's existence.

We also become aware of God's propensity for wrath, and we are told not to tempt him or displease him.

If God created everything, He is Lord of everything, and is perfectly entitled to become angry about how His creation is abused for evil purposes. If a father left his property in the control of one of his son, and that son reduced it to chaos and a wreck, no one would think it was absurd for the father to be angry, since the property was his, and his son would not exist but for him and the son's mother. Yet when the same general idea is applied to God, all of a sudden, atheists get this silly notion that it is immediately absurd and unreasonable for God to be Judge of the universe that He created. I say that many of these common skeptical notions flow from simple prejudice and lack of solid thinking, rather than from detached reason and proper, fair analysis.

Then we are introduced to the Holy Spirit and the unfathomable tale of the Trinity. That three can equal one is totally outside of our ability to understand. In fact, few, if any, adults can comprehend this one. The story continues to become more muddled and confusing, and yet we are told we must believe, and we oblige.

It is not "unfathomable at all. Difficult, yes; not able to be adequately or fully comprehended based on our own experience, yes, but not logically impossible. Nor is it "three equals one." It is not "there are three gods and there are one god" (which would be a contradiction). Rather, it is: "there is one God Who subsists in three Persons." This is not a contradiction because persons and God are not the same thing. One God can have three Persons just as one person could theoretically have three brains or three hearts. That is not "three equals one"; it is "three x's in one y." So again, no argument is really given, that can be dissected and examined and scrutinized. The author blithely assumes that all rational, "non-brainwashed" men know the Trinity is absurd, and dismisses it. He may do that if he wishes, but what he may not do is pretend that such a thought process is rational argumentation.

Belief becomes a habit driven by fear of the unknown or the fear of rejection if we doubt or question, so our questions are internalized, and we begin to feel guilt.

More pop-psychological pablum; unworthy of serious attention, as it is again merely assumed as some grand explanation for religious belief.

We now learn a more rigid set of moral values. We learn that thinking a wrong thing is the same as committing the act.

That's correct. There is a certain moral equivalence, as Jesus taught, because all evil acts begin in the will. This is why we have different degrees in murder charges. The notion of premeditation is a legal concept which holds that an act is more blameworthy if it is planned and thought out beforehand (as opposed to a momentary loss of temper, an act of passion, temporary insanity, a half-accident, etc.). I think this is quite sophisticated ethics and psychology, and it is thoroughly Christian. But Mr. Hypes seems to think it is silly and unwarranted. I don't think he has adequately thought-through these issues. or at least so it appears, going by this article alone.

Our guilt grows, and our ability to deal with it overwhelms us.

Guilt is a great thing if we have done something wrong. It's only bad if it is a false or unnecessary guilt.

The feelings of inadequacy wash over us, challenging the depth and the coldness of the baptismal immersion.

Interesting poetic flourish . . . not sure what it is supposed to mean, but it sure sounds impressive, doesn't it? This would require a lengthy reply itself, but suffice it to say that it is hardly conducive to a feeling of "inadequacy" to believe that we are creatures of a marvelous, loving God, in Whose image we are made. Apart from whether theism is true or not; the notion itself does not lend itself more readily to "feelings of inadequacy" than, say, atheism, where we are merely random products of meaningless physical processes. If that is all we are, I could fully comprehend how one might feel utterly "inadequate," in light of the grandeur and largeness of the universe and even the earth. But all things being equal, "inadequacy" is a hugely complex topic which would incorporate background experiences, cultural conditioning, birth order, temperament, even something like income, as well as many other factors. To tie this in simplistically with Christianity is ridiculous.

Thoreau said it well: "They think they love God! It is only his old clothes, of which they make scarecrows for the children. Where will they come nearer to God than in those very children?"

So Thoreau is unable to make a rational argument too, and must resort to mocking? Perhaps he did make such an argument somewhere, but it is not present in this quote, which helps us not a whit in our pursuit of the truth with regard to the questions of theism and religion.

Theists base their belief on faith, belief based on emotion and culturalization.

Clearly, this is a gross generalization, and as such, is of little value in moving the discussion along. Hypes assumes that reason and intellect play little or no part in religious belief, without in the least establishing this. I understand that his own testimony is personally valuable to him, as some sort of sentimental or self-rationalizing thing, but I am under no obligation to accept all his unproven axioms and statements. Thus, ironically -- judging by his methodology -- he is the one who is playing the game with all faith propositions and unproven premises. I, the Christian, have been using my reason and intellect throughout this critique, showing how the author is not dong so in this article. I am demonstrating in my very reply that here is one "theist" at least who is not opposed to reason at all. And I am by no means alone in that. Nor, I assert, does Christianity or the Bible, correctly understood, rather than parodied and caricatured.

When reason and rationale challenge that faith, then the reason can have no value and the rationale must be incorrect. Faith is irrefutable and errorless because it must be in order to validate all in which they believe.

This is quite unfair as well. Everyone believes in some things without fully understanding them: no exceptions. I have made this point a hundred times. Even the greatest thinkers, like Einstein, freely admit that there is a wonder or mystery to the universe. No one can explain everything. Granted, many less-sophisticated Christians fall back on a sort of irrational faith, immune to reason, but so do a great many "sophisticated" thinkers. I could write on this all day. It is simply not a matter of "the unreasonable, gullible, irrational Christians vs. the reasonable, clever, understanding, educated atheists and skeptics." The author must know that his statements are far too broad if he has met any theists at all (folks like philosophers, scientists, etc.). if he knows this, then he is obligated to not absurdly generalize, as he is doing.

They then raise their children into the habit of accepting absurdities, mysteries, convoluted thinking, and supplication. They do this while the children's minds are supple and moldable. They know that the habits of thought thus formed stand a good chance of lasting a lifetime.

Again, all parents raise their children according to what they believe to be true about life and religion and ethics, or whatever. There is nothing immediately wrong about that. One has to determine what is true before we get to the question of child-rearing. I could argue that children's "supple and moldable" minds are just as harmfully brainwashed in our public schools today. I attended those my entire childhood, and I didn't learn the slightest thing about God (and many other topics, either). I came out a good, secular humanist and practical atheist (the idea that even if God exists, He is irrelevant to daily life and relegated to a private, inconsequential sphere). Why would I not be as justified in protesting that state of affairs, as the atheist would protest a fundamentalist raising his child to believe that the earth goes around the sun, or that the earth is 6000 years old, etc.? At least that is the parent in control of his or her own family, whereas the state school system presumes to know "truth" and to propagate it down to its little citizens, so they can be fine and dandy liberal, libertarian secularists (as I was, until I actually started thinking on my own). Even when I got to college, I continued to be subjected to manifest historical absurdities, like Marxism, or psychological absurdities, like Freudianism. There is plenty of error and nonsense to go around, and it is by no means confined to Christian circles.

Belief existing in such a vacuum serves to alienate the faithful of each new generation from the world around them. They either live in judgment of anyone who does not believe as they do, or they begin to question their own values. The following poem by John Dryden may best express this phenomenon:

By education most have been misled;
So they believe, because they were so bred.
The priest continues what the nurse began,
And thus the child imposes on the man.
I don't see such things as intrinsically Christian. Isolation from the world or judgementalism is just as possible in a secular worldview as in a Christian one. These are simply attitudinal and cultural problems that need to be avoided by all and sundry.

What I thought of as an honest and critical look at the religion I had embraced all of my life had gone on for years as a halfhearted effort.

I can see that. Would that the author would give us some rational argumentation, since he claims to have attained such an exalted state of enlightened reason, due to his having cast off the shackles of antiquated and groundless religion.

I wanted to find the truth, yet I wanted that truth to support that in which I had always believed. In other words, I was front-loading my search by trying to find corroborating evidences, not by searching for the real truth.

We all tend to do that because we all have our existing beliefs, and they inevitably influence our further searches. This is why we must compare and contrast: looking at the most able proponents of any given position (not the worst ones) and make up our own minds as to truth.

As I delved into the questions raised by rational thought, I increasingly found more questions. Each answer ended up raising dozens of other questions. I finally had to face the fact that the only way I would ever find the answers I sought would be to let the truth lead me to its destination. I then stumbled onto the following quotation. It is known as the Maxim of Freethought: "He who cannot reason is defenseless; he who fears to reason has a cowardly mind; he who will not reason is willing to be deceived and will deceive all who listen to him." This struck home. I realized my cowardice and resolved to overcome it. I threw myself anew into research but with a new approach.

All this shows is that Mr. Hypes' own Churches of Christ version of Christianity was devoid of reason; not at all that Christianity, period, or theism, are devoid of reason. So I have been given nothing whatsoever here to cause me to cease believing in God or Christianity. All this piece can accomplish, as far as I am concerned, is to give comfort and solace to other atheists who are former Christians, so that they can rationalize their loss of faith and feel good about themselves (much as testimonies of conversion serve in many Christian communities). Ironically, then, the author falls back on the same sort of non-rational mere emotionalism and sentimentality that he purports to be criticizing. Touting reason, he continues to communicate non-rationally when "explaining" his rejection of Christianity.

Biblical literalism and inerrancy appear to be enemies to the truth, and subsequent study on my part has led me to believe this to an absolute degree. Biblical literalism, as defined and interpreted by various denominations and individuals, has produced such things as the Amish shunning of modern lifestyles and snake handling to prove one's faith and refusing medical treatment to oneself or one's family. Biblical literalism has led to prejudicial actions against nonbelievers, including imprisonment, censure, torture, death, and even wars. Religion, says Feuerbach, is self-estrangement. There is the separation of the world into one spiritual and one earthly. Man sees himself, first, as an individual with limitations, then as a self without limits, empowered by his God.

This is taking the most jaded approach imaginable. Some of the extremes and distortions of historic Christianity are set up as reasons to "throw out the baby with the bathwater." Obviously, Hypes is still reacting strongly to his own background (just as many well-known atheists had rotten fathers and projected that onto the "God" they no longer wished to believe in). But, you see, his background is not every Christians' experience or rationale for their belief. And he is foolish to think that it is. This is the most fundamental flaw of his article. He hasn't uttered a word about Catholicism or Orthodoxy or High Church Anglicanism. Those things don't even enter his radar screen. Instead, he is on a crusade to excoriate his own past fundamentalism. Many of us never went through such a phase, so it doesn't dominate our thinking and emotions as it seems to do in Hypes' case. My own intellectual and spiritual odyssey was quite otherwise: I started out as a religious liberal (to the extent that I knew anything at all about my religion), then went on to virtual secular humanism and practical atheism, then evangelical Christianity, then Catholicism. At every stage, I was thinking through the issues. Background had little to do with it, as I was religiously nominal as a child.

A major purpose of fundamentalist religions is to supply a safe harbor for those who are insecure, fearful, lost or lonely, by justifying a way of life with narrow, defining principles and prejudices. The authority of the Bible is the final arbiter of any question. The inerrancy of the Bible is the final argument to justify or indemnify, becoming the central focus of such a life. The main philosophy of fundamentalists is one of constancy in which they find solace against an outside world filled with questions. They insulate themselves against such assaults by finding answers in these words and ideas, no matter how flawed they may prove to be.

There is some truth to this. As long as fundamentalism is seen as a distortion of Christianity, I wouldn't object to much of it. But the distinction is not as prominent as it should be here. There is indeed a sort of infantile, irrational, insular version of Christianity that is indeed open to much of the criticism Mr. Hypes' sets forth. My only point is that this is a distortion of Christianity, rightly-understood. If one rejects the distortion of something, he is not rejecting the thing itself. As for solace and comfort, etc.: those make perfect sense if there is a God Who can offer same. Therefore, the question goes right back to the existence or nonexistence of God.

To be human means we are doomed to explaining our world, not simply and directly, but only indirectly, through these interpretations. We dwell in our interpretations. In explicating a phenomenon, we always put it in terms limited by our ability to understand, always based in our own prejudices and preconceptions. This means that we will understand things partially and inadequately, through language rather than a godlike omniscience.

I agree. This is true for atheists and theists alike. Theists; however, claim to be in possession of revelation: which is God explaining the world and spiritual truth to us. It is an additional source of knowledge. If it exists, it is supremely important; if it does not, then it is a big joke and a farce.

Therefore, we internalize our belief structure, i.e., that which causes and enhances our beliefs.
At the same time, we externalize its effects on our lives and that of those about us. This duality of nature does not lead us to understanding or knowledge but to faith. Faith in an improperly arrived at conclusion based on illconceived thought processes becomes so entrenched that it is often thought to be the truth even when it flies in the face of reality.

Here again is the dichotomizing of faith and reason. It need not be so at all. But this is never pointed out.

No reasonable person can believe that the guesses of preliterate man, upon which the myths of gods and the supernatural are based, were true. The beliefs of these primitives, however, were more reasonable in terms of their limited and insignificant knowledge, than the beliefs of today's religionists who have masses of information available to them.

Biblical revelation (in the Old Testament) is not "preliterate." Moses could write. The question is whether God revealed Himself or not, to the Jews, the chosen people. If He did, when it happened is irrelevant. The knowledge revealed would have relevance for all time.

It is apparent that such faith is based upon emotion, rather than reason.

This is not apparent at all. It is only apparent that some folks pit reason and faith against each other, as if they were fundamentally hostile.

Emotion needs no proof and rejects all questioning. Reason demands answers, questions conflicts, and objectively studies the issues from every available source and viewpoint. Reason is fearless thought, undeterred by legal, spiritual, or social penalties. Dissenting viewpoints do not alarm those who seek truth. The knowledge seeker who has a passion for truth fears nothing except error.

Amen! I am very muich in agreement with this sentiment. My reason has led me to theism, the Christian God, and to Catholicism. And it has shown me how atheism is untrue. One may disagree with my conclusions, but they can't claim that reason did not play the crucial role in my belief-system.

I have found the average skeptic to have a much broader knowledge of the Bible and theological issues than the average Christian.

I don't know what sort of Christians Mr. Hypes has been talking to. I have found just the opposite. In fact, atheists are abysmally ignorant of even rudimentary biblical exegesis and hermeneutics. I have demonstrated this on several occasions in the course of my apologetics.

Whether led to skepticism by knowledge or led to the knowledge by their skepticism, the truth of the skeptic is that he is ultimately led by a search for truth.

They have no corner on that search; nor is it immediately evident that the search for truth characterizes the motivations and goals of all skeptics and atheists. Aldous Huxley, for example, admitted that his rejection of Christianity was due to basically a desire for sexual freedom. He was honest. And I dare say this sort of "reason" is quite widespread.
Few Christians can delineate the reasons and evidences for their faith. Almost any attempt to elucidate qualitative responses on the subject elicit catch phrases and incoherent babbling.

I am an apologist, whose field is defending the Christian faith and giving reasons for why we believe what we do. I have had no problem offering sound answers to atheists. They are a challenge, but by no means an insurmountable one.

If one believes, based on naivety or innocence, it may appear charming or quaint, such as a child believing in Santa Claus. If one believes culturally, because he was raised to believe certain things, it can be understood, even if there is no other basis. If one believes as a result of erroneous information or faulty study, it is lamentable. When one defends, propounds, and propagates such error as fact and refuses to examine other information objectively, it is intellectually reprehensible, and I will challenge that type of belief every time.

I agree. Well-stated. I'm all for challenges and dialogue. Bring them on! But not many people are truly interested in that.
Biblical literalism presents more questions than answers. It offers a god we cannot respect or understand, a god who changes vastly from passage to passage and event to event, a lack of consistency in what should be consistent if our faith is not to be shaken. What is impossible for our minds to believe our hearts cannot worship.

First of all, "biblical literalism" is not the whole of biblical interpretation. Hyper-literalism characterizes fundamentalist Protestantism, but not historic Christianity. Secondly, biblical so-called "contradictions" are often not that at all, once scrutinized. Often, statements such as the above (about God changing, and this being a biblical teaching) flow from ignorance of Christian theology and the Bible, and of Hebraisms and Ancient Near Eastern expressions, idiom, and culture.

Bob Hypes, P. O. Box 305, Howe, IN 46746.)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Bob Hypes' letters have appeared in previous issues of The Skeptical Review. He is a former Church-of-Christ preacher, and he tells a familiar story. He grew up believing what he had been taught in his childhood, but when he engaged in serious Bible studies as an adult, he found things in it that made it impossible to continue believing what he had been taught as a child. Many former fundamentalists will say that the Bible is its own worst enemy. If we could just get more Christians to study this book that they claim to believe in so much, the inevitable result would be fewer Christians. The Christian religion thrives on ignorance of the very book that is its foundation.


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