Thursday, August 27, 2009

Exorcising the demons of sheep fear

It's amazing how long really bad ideas can stay with you. It seems to me what when you considered some ideas to be true for long enough, even finding out that they were false and/or really bad things to believe somehow still fails to rid you of those notions completely. You reject them, you disbelieve them, you try to move on and yet they continue to sit in the darkest pools of your subconscious like warty toads, ready to leap up when you least expect it. I could be wrong but I would wager that ever semi-enlightened adult carries a few of these ugly ex-truths around, whether it be some latent bigotry, unfair stereotypes, utterly false pieces of pop psych or urban myth. I think I carry a bit of all of those in the dark clammy recesses of my mind and recently I became newly aware of the need to clean out these toads, these tenacious demons of ignorance.

On second thought, it hardly seems fair to call these toady remnants "demons of ignorance" because ignorance seems to be the wrong word. These are at at best remnants of former ignorance. Ignorance implies not knowing any better, but the things I'm referring to are instances where you most certainly do know better but you still have these ideas that you know are false tenaciously refusing to give up ground. A good example would be when I was recently doing some essays on various world religions and was surprised to find that a lot of my opinions regarding them were still based on what I read in various Chick Tracts as a child. There I was reading the fascinating tale of the birth of Islam and suddenly I recall the Chick "facts" about how Islam (as well as communism, World War 2, the American Civil War and pretty much every bad thing ever) was actually founded by the Catholic Church! I was stunned by my own mind, I just couldn't believe my (inner) ears! I knew Chick tracts were full of oversimplifications, misinformation and outright lies and yet some part of me still held on to the idea that the Great Catholic Conspiracy as revealed by Jack Chick could be true. Why was that?

I think it would be more accurate to call these toads "demons of double-think" because they entail exactly what George Orwell described - the ability to hold 2 conflicting facts in your mind and accept them both as true. The other shoe finally dropped when I started reading the brilliant page by page analysis of the Left Behind series on The Slacktivist. I was shocked to realise that I was reading in that blog the conclusions I should have come to while reading those books but just never did. I remember vividly that while reading the Left Behind series I kept thinking that "this makes no sense, this is not how the world works, this is not how people are, things simply can't realistically happen this way" AND YET at the very same time I was also thinking "wow, this is exactly how the end time events are supposed to be, these guys are setting it out perfectly, how can anyone doubt this?!" If that reaction makes no sense to you then imagine how I felt when I read someone discussing the books and making the same observations but instead drawing the correct conclusions - that the fact that these books seem so wildly unrealistic proves that all the ideas regarding a premillenial dispensationalist rapture is also unrealistic. If people don't act like that and if the world doesn't work that way and if it is entirely divorced from reality then that renders the entire premise flawed. Scratch that, it renders it impossible. That is the conclusion I should have come to myself, so why didn't I?

I guess one reason could be because these ideas are so incredibly deeply rooted. I grew up as a premillenial dispensationalist and I received endless amounts of Rapture porn from the pulpit for well over a decade. I remember one visiting preacher who taught exclusively on the end times (and we had many of these over the years) who had a giant end times chart that took up the entire front of of the church. I remember it well because amongst other things it clearly explained that Jesus would return for His Church in 1977. Somehow despite the fact that I was born in 1977 and was probably around 13 at the time, I still had no issues believing everything he taught. Honestly its because of things like these that I want to go back in time and smack myself for being so uncritical and naive!

It may seem as if I am overreacting to something small - after all what is the harm in believing these things, its not like it's hurting anyone. Ah, but it is not so simple. See when these toads of ignorance and these demons of doublethink set up shop they create a ripe environment for all their friends to come live in. For instance once you start buying into all the convoluted exegesis about the Antichrist being a man of peace then before long you have the demon of sheep fear in your life. You start disregarding everything that Jesus taught about "turning the other cheek" and about peacemakers being blessed and instead you start mistrusting everyone who actually turn the other cheek and want to make peace. Instead of heeding the Bible's warning to watch out for wolves in sheep's clothing you start watching out for everything that remotely looks like a sheep which usually (and absurdly) leads you to embracing the wolf instead! After all, you start to reason, when one candidate wants peace and the other wants war then surely the guy who wants war is the only one who can't be the Antichrist and so you end up supporting the guy who wants war!! Suddenly it is as if Jesus actually said cursed are the peacemakers!

Don't even get me started on the demon of demon spotting where you start ascribing everything that happens in your life to the work of some demon with a highly specialized name...

Oh crap...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The testimony that broke the camel's back

The recent trip to the Creation Museum by PZ Myers and about 300 atheists from the Secular Student Alliance, brought back the memory of the occasion that destroyed my personal belief that Christians were honest and trustworthy in their testimony. Growing up in a Pentecostal church meant that I used to trust Christian testimony. When a Christian brother or sister testified to something the Lord had done for them, I believed it no matter how strange it seemed. After all, who would lie when they were talking about God? When my skeptical side started budding I did start to find it harder and harder to remain that credulous, especially with the weirder stories. I remember this one time when a lady told of how she walked in on her sleeping grandson being serenaded by The Devil on TV. Not someone dressed as the devil, not a devil, THE Devil! Apparently as soon as he saw her coming into the room he (THE DEVIL!!) got all flustered and said “OK bye!” and left. This was a strange and defining moment for me because I couldn’t help but notice that while I was thinking “Yeah right!!” my mom (an otherwise skeptical and very intelligent lady) was totally willing to give this woman the benefit of the doubt. However it took the Creationism vs Evolution debate to deliver the killing blow to my credulity.

Long story short I was at first totally convinced by the Creation Science Evangelism seminars of Kent Hovind so when I then found out how much disinformation and lies they contained I was reeling. While trying to make sense of it all I checked out several groups Facebook dedicated to this debate. My favourite was the now defunct “Free Kent Hovind” group. So in my search for answers I decided to post a question in the discussion forum. By then I had read much about how Creation Science was not science at all so I decided to go a different route – I asked whether Creation Science Evangelism was really evangelism. It just seemed to me like no-one on the evolution side ever seemed to be won over and that the only people who enjoyed the seminars were people who were already Creationists looking for confirmation of their beliefs. So I asked the several hundred Hovind fans in the group if they (or anyone they knew) actually became believers because of Creation Science. For a while there was little response and what I got was the literary equivalent of a mumbled “No not exactly” until someone called in the big guns – a testimony from the CSE site itself:

[The original has since been removed but thanks to the wayback machine you can see it in its original glory here ]

"The Power of Polite Questioning" Submited By: Joshua Joscelyn Armed with my textbook, my Bible and my CSE Seminar Notebook, I walked into my earth science classroom, where I knew tonight we would once again discuss evolutionary ideas as if they were facts. I was a freshman at Okaloosa-Walton College, and my professor, Dr. Steven Vaos, a friendly older gentleman from Greece, had been teaching us how plate tectonics, Pangaea, the fossil record, and radiometric dating, etc. proved the earth to be millions and millions of years old. I had been a diligent student who always did my homework well and contributed respectfully to class discussion and projects, and now, though I didn’t even know it, God was going to use my in-class questions to change the entire course of the semester. As the professor started in with his usual mantra, I respectfully raised my hand and asked a question. He couldn’t answer it. So he moved on with his lecture demonstrating in his thick Greek accent how similarities in species and things of that sort obviously pointed to a common ancestor. I once again raised my hand asking if perhaps it could also point to a common designer. He chuckled and patronizingly said it could. But he continued with his explanations of various things, always tying it back into evolution. But at every turn, I raised my hand and showed how it could also be evidence for creation and a worldwide flood. He saw where I was heading and tried to avoid it, but eventually, through a series of questions and statements, we as a class arrived there nevertheless. At every turn, the questions I asked revealed the startling weakness of his theory. The class came alive upon seeing the gross uncertainty of his position after he had been so dogmatic. Hands started flying into the air as secret believers and non-Christians alike began voicing fallacies and contradictions they had observed in the theory he had been presenting. Students not only proclaimed their faith in God’s creation but also showed how evolution comes into direct conflict with creation. After leaving evolution with no legs to stand upon, even the non-Christians began discussing creation as the logical alternative. I sat back in my chair silently praising the Lord for the enlightening power of His truth as the class systematically whittled away at the accepted theory of evolution. The professor simply could not answer the questions they were posing. After about twenty minutes of this, he began to think out loud. Hands raised in question were invisible to him now as he paced back and forth rambling on about his doubts of the theory and some discrepancies, he had quietly harbored for many years. Soon his monologue turned straight to religion as he proclaimed to the class with a tear in his eye that he was a good person, that he should have nothing to answer for should there be a judgment, and how he really would like to believe that he would see his deceased family some day. It was sad in a way to see this pleasant old man visibly confused and wondering. One student pointed out in almost frustration, “Isn’t this an earth science class? Why are we discussing religion?” But we weren’t discussing anything. He was hung up on voicing an internal dialogue in which he went back and forth, weighing his good against his bad, wondering which religion was right, debating whether or not the Bible was literally true, and if it was church membership or just goodness that God demanded of him. I raised my hand and asked him if he would like for me to show him after class how he could have his questions answered. He hesitated. After having rambled on almost entirely uninterrupted for nearly twenty minutes about religion and morality, he was apparently feeling somewhat foolish and wanting to get back to the lesson. But he had already filled up the entire class period. With a few closing comments, he dismissed the class and made his way over to me. He began asking me questions about evolution vs. creation. But I was no expert. I was merely a young college student who took God at His Word: “In the beginning God created.” So I told him I could introduce him to the One Who created the universe, Who could answer all his questions. Right there in the classroom, I opened my Bible and showed him how to be saved. He had too many questions at that moment and clearly wasn’t ready to make such a big decision just yet, but he told me of a Bible he had—a gift his Christian mother had given him before she died. He told me that he was going to read it—that he wanted to find the truth. Then I told him about the CSE Creation Seminar Series videos and offered to loan him one. The next week after viewing it, he thanked me for it and told me he had many questions answered and now he was asking even more. He was on a mission to find the truth. With only a few weeks left in the semester, I didn’t get to see where his search ended. But I know that for the rest of the semester, whenever he came across something he previously had see as evidence for evolution, he told us that while this might seem to indicate a common ancestor, perhaps it was evidence of a worldwide flood or of an Intelligent Designer.

In fact someone had actually alerted Mr Joscelyn and he posted his testimony in the group personally. Now I was intrigued and just had to know how he managed to convince a Professor of Earth Science when I had seen most Creation Science claims being demolished by undergrads. Needless to say that when he proceeded to mention the very arguments and “facts” I had seen defeated so many times I started seriously doubting his story. Then I decided to do something I had never done before – I started fact checking a fellow Christian’s testimony.

First I checked out Okaloosa-Walton College. While looking at the faculty I couldn’t find a Dr Vaos though (thanks to Google) I did find someone who matched his description at Broward Community College. I contacted the Science department and I received the following email from Dr. Bryan, the Chair of Physical Sciences at Okaloosa-Walton College:

"Eugene, This is a curious discovery that you have made. Stephen Vaos no longer teaches for us, only because he had to relocate due to some personal issues (his former wife recenly passed) that he had to tend to in south Florida. He did a fine job for many years as an adjunct professor of Earth science. Steph also had a distinguished career as an industry geologist. If Steve is at Broward CC, you might just try to reach him there. As for this classroom story, I can neither confirm or deny it. Steve never told me of such an incident, nor did any student or any other individual associated with the college or otherwise. So I don't know what to tell you, at all. This is all news to us in the science department. Kent Hovind is presently in prison because of some type of tax evasion problem with a program he had in Pensacola. I only say this as a matter of fact. Hovind visited our college years ago at the request of a student, gave a presentation, and we had a discussion/mini-dabate afterward. As a firmly committed Christian myself (of a conservative Anglican variety), and as a geologist and educator, I naturally have a great interest and concern about these issues generally. And I enjoy engaging students on the various issues. But it sure is difficult to get people on the same level to have an honest discussion over almost anything. To me this indicates the great importance to us of origins issues. And that, at least, is how it should be. Now the hard work of dialogue.... Jon Bryan"

OK so he couldn’t “confirm or deny” anything but by now the story sure seemed even more unlikely to be true. He did manage to confirm that the Dr Vaos who taught there and the Dr Vaos at Broward was the same person. Reaching Dr Vaos was a little harder so I called in some help. Someone else on the Free Kent Hovind group – Whitney Gray, these days better known as popular Youtuber DonExodus – had just done a great piece of detective work showing the Discovery Institute’s list of “Dissenters from Darwinism” to be a total sham. Since he was an academic I asked him to see if he could get an answer out of Dr Vaos. He got the following reply:

"When I teach Earth Science and explain to the students about evolution, I always state to the students that whatever I am going to teach you is not what I believe but what is written in your book and what science accepts. My personal believes are not part of the lecture. I never tried to imposes my personal ideas to anybody, in the class and outside the class. Sir you are insulting me presenting me like an stubborn person who forces students to accept my ideas. Your whole letter is inaccurate and completely imaginary. I do not know why you are doing that. I have taught in an college in North Florida in a class with many Baptists students and they were glad that I had never had any argument with any of them. They had mentioned that they do not go along with evolution and I respected it. I have NEVER discuss religion with any student and they are many students that can confirm that. I only discuss whatever is mentioned in the texbook and whatever geology is based on without mentioning EVER my personal views. If you did not understand science or if you do not accept any view of science it is your busness. Be careful though because you are accusing me using lies, and I if you do continue I will get legal action against you. Dr. Stephen P. Vaos"

As you can see Dr Vaos mistakenly assumed that Whitney was the source of the testimony and he was very upset by the allegations! So then after correcting the misunderstanding, he sent the following email:

"Mr W.Gray I am sorry if I turned against you. It was not clear if you were in support or not of the whole libel. I was upset because I am always professional in my teaching. Geology is based on evolution which is depicted very well in the succession of the sedimentary rocks from the old to the younger ones. So when I have to present this to the students I always make the statement:" Whatever I am going to explain you is what science accepts, or whatever we can find in your book in your textbook, and this presentation has nothing to do with my personal views on the subject", I am very careful in explaining this because I do not want to insult anybodie's belief. Now if any student twists the truth and insists that I am trying to push evolution that is a inaccurate insult. Students that get an "D" of "F" try very hard to incriminate the teacher instead of theit lazy attitude. Sincerely, Dr.S.P.Vaos"

That settled it without a doubt. The testimony was a complete and utter fabrication. Now it would be unfair to say that this case alone destroyed my faith in my fellow Christians because by then guys like Hovind and Jack Chick had already done a great job of undermining the trust I had in the things my fellow Christians told me. This case just provided the final push that sent me over the edge.

I don’t know why people think they need to lie for Jesus, I really don’t. Maybe they think the end justifies the means but really all it does is destroy the credibility of Christianity. I for one will never take any testimony at face value again.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The perils of giving Christians power proven yet again

I would like to start this blog by saying that I really hate to say "I told you so" but that would be a lie. I love saying it. But I do realise that this is a rather annoying character flaw and I'm working on it. Still, once in a while something so vindicating happens that its hard for me to contain myself. Little over a year ago I wrote a blog post on how badly Christians handle power. Now I think the examples I listed there as well as the history of Christianity since Constantine (and perhaps earlier) proved my point just fine. So really when Jeff Sharlet released a book called "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power" it was really just icing on the cake. On the other hand its the kind of icing that makes you sick to your stomach and thats the reason I'm not currently doing the I-told-you-so-dance. Like most people I found out about this group of Christian politicians when a series of sex scandals involving these good Christian Conservatives hit the news. That alone should have been a sign that there is something wrong on a much deeper level. After all if a group of people all living in the same house all got cancer we would suspect that there may be something carcinogenic in that house. Similarly the fact that about 5 men living in the same house and belonging to the same organization all suffered serious moral failings should have been a clue that there was something seriously wrong with the atmosphere in that house! So then I really shouldn't have been this surprised by this interview with the author and yet I never imagined things would be this dark:

When studying Judaism I came accross something facinating regarding the Name of God - the concepts of chillul Ha-Shem and kiddush Ha-Shem. Any deed that increases the respect accorded to God or Judaism is referred to as kiddush Ha-Shem, "sanctification of The Name", on the other hand, any act that causes God or Judaism to come into disrespect or a commandment to be disobeyed is often referred to as chillul Ha-Shem, "profanation of The Name". I think here we are dealing with a clear case of chillul Ha-Shem. I am a Christian and stories like this leave a bad taste in my mouth. I can't even imagine how this goes over among non-Christians.

You know as much as I like to say "I told you so" there are times where I would have much preferred to be proven wrong instead...

For more information on The Family, check out the Wikipedia entry