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Is the Atheist My Neighbor? a book by Randal Rauser, reviewed by Edward Babinski

Is the Atheist My Neighbor?

Dr Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary and blogs at The Tentative Apologist. In his book, Is the Atheist My Neighbor? Randal denounces the narrow “rebellion thesis,” i.e., that atheists moreso than any other people are in rebellion (often conscious direct rebellion) against the one true God and one true religion.

Randal points out how popular the narrow “rebellion thesis”/ has been, and still is, among conservative Christians, and how simplistic and naive it is when it comes to explaining how and why people actually become atheists. (He also points out some differences in how different atheists view their atheism, along with differences in how they react to the God question and treat God believers.)

Randal also questions the persistent use of a few isolated passages of Scripture used to support the narrow “rebellion thesis.” He argues that the original context of such passages has little to do with modern atheistic ideas and beliefs—especially since there were no true atheists to speak of in either the ancient Israelite world or the Roman world where Christianity took root. For instance, the Old Testament passage, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God,” wasn't about Israelites becoming atheists or arguing for atheism, but a warning that Yahweh would punish people who foolishly dare to ignore His divine laws or commands and who try to convince themselves in their heart that nothing bad will happen to them as a result.

I applaud Randal's attempt to spare atheists from being negatively stereo-typed by conservative Christians as the most blind, stupid, and vile lot of humanity. (Randal also would like to see Christians not negatively stereo-typed.) Randal invites his fellow Christians to view all people, including atheists, as individuals not as stereo-types (especially not as negative stereo-types) and see atheists treated with as much love and respect as the “neighbors” whom Jesus commanded his followers to love. And Randal cites the parable of the Good Samaritan, changing it to a parable about a good atheist who rescues a Christian who has been beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. I think Randal could have strengthened his discussion of that parable by adding a list of atheist (and agnostic) doctors, agriculturalists, inventors, scientists, musicians, artists, actors, writers, statesmen and stateswomen who have worked to feed, heal, educate, liberate and inspire their fellow humans.

On the other hand, I also found myself disagreeing in part with some of Randal's rosier biblical interpretations.

Let's say we agree with Randal that the narrow “rebellion thesis” aimed so often at atheists today, is flawed for many of the reasons he presents. Should atheists feel better when so many passages remain in the Bible that blame everyone (everyone including atheists) for having a hardened, rebellious, unbelieving heart? There are still plenty of biblical passages that state outright or assume that everyone who refuses to bow down to the Christian God are “rebelling” against the Kingdom of God, and that only Christian beliefs and practices determine who is a true subject/servant/slave of the Lord and His Kingdom. Thus, those “in rebellion” include nearly everyone, from blasphemers, and people of non-Christian religious beliefs—to people of “unorthodox” Christian beliefs, agnostics and atheists.

The irony is that Randal's use of the broad “rebellion thesis” to deflect attention from the narrow “rebellion thesis” doesn't really seem to do atheists much of a favor. Which reminds of the time a famous Southern Baptist decades ago declared that God does not hear/respond to the prayers of a Jew. When challenged by others to explain himself he said he wasn't being anti-Semitic because he also believed that God ignores the prayers of Muslims, Hindus, or anyone else who was not a believing Christian.

Speaking of biblical passages that support the broad “rebellion thesis,” keep in mind that a synonym for “rebelliousness” is “lawlessness.” And one is either a loyal subject of God's kingdom or a lawless rebel. There is no room for “lukewarmness” either per the author of the book of Revelation who warned that Jesus “spew out of his mouth” even lukewarm orthodox Christian believers. While in the Gospel of Matthew, the parable of the sheep and goats is speaking about eternal punishment for those who do not support the worldwide mission to bring more people into the church. It is a parable about what the world owes the church (Google: heavenly extortion scrivenings) While the Gospel of John teaches that those who don't believe are “already damned” (Google: Gospel of John anti-language scrivenings). In short, authors of the New Testament preach Christ and preach against the “spirit of antichrist” in all its forms. The New Testament frequently divides the world and/or its people into Christ or antiChrist, light or darkness, wheat or tare. Either your name is written in the book of life or not. You are either a servant of Christ and of God's kingdom or in favor of lawlessness, a REBEL.

“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’

Gospel of Matthew 7:22-23

“Let no one in any way deceive or entrap you, for that day will not come unless the apostasy comes first [that is, the great REBELLION, the abandonment of the faith by professed Christians], and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction [the Antichrist, the one who is destined to be destroyed]
2 Thessalonians 2:3 [Amplified Bible, so are the passages that follow]

“For the mystery of lawlessness [REBELLION against divine authority and the coming reign of lawlessness] is already at work; [but it is restrained] only until he who now restrains it is taken out of the way.”
2 Thessalonians 2:7

“For there are many REBELLIOUS men who are empty talkers [just windbags] and deceivers; especially those of the circumcision [those Jews who insist that Gentile believers must be circumcised and keep the Law in order to be saved].
Titus 1:10

“…understanding the fact that law is not enacted for the righteous person [the one in right standing with God], but for lawless and REBELLIOUS people, for the ungodly and sinful, for the irreverent and profane.”

1 Timothy 1:9 [“irreverent and profane” are broad categories, and I suspect the author of this letter, had he lived to see our day, would have viewed it with a level of concern similar to (if not exceeding)  that of conservative Evangelicals who rail against increases in the nones, in agnosticism, atheism, and non-devoutly minded (historically questioning) works by NT scholars].

“Do not harden your hearts as [your fathers did] in the rebellion [of Israel at Meribah], On the day of testing in the wilderness.”
Hebrews 3:8 [I have heard Evangelicals say more than once that all who refuse the invitation to convert to Christianity have “hardened, rebellious hearts.”]

“So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and harvested the grapevine of the earth, and threw the grapes into the great wine press of the wrath and indignation of God [as judgment of the rebellious world].”
Revelation 14:19

“[ The Coming of Christ the Conqueror ] And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who was riding it is called Faithful and True… He judges and wages war [on the rebellious nations].”
Revelation 19:11

“From His mouth comes a sharp sword (His word) with which He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He will tread the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty [in judgment of the rebellious world].”
Revelation 19:15

“[The Final Rebellion ] And when the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison (the abyss)…”
Revelation 20:7

Christian preachers and biblical authors have always taken the broad question of “rebellion” against God seriously, both then and now. Therefore Christians who believe every passage In the Bible is inspired will always be able to pluck out passages capable of inspiring divisiveness rather than unity, passages that can even lead to the literal demonization of other people as rebels against God and His kingdom, inspired by the spirit of antiChrist. One must either bow down in trust and obedience to the Christian God as depicted in the Christian Bible, or risk eternal punishment.

Let's also look at Randal's interpretation of this passage in Romans, chapter 1:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”

Was Paul even being original in coming up with such ideas? Very similar ideas appear in a non-canonical apocryphal Jewish writing that Paul probably had some knowledge of, i.e., The Wisdom of Solomon, which was popular among Jewish readers during the Hellenistic era when it first appears on the scene. Compare Paul above with these passages from the Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-5 & 14:22-31:

“For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world. If through delight in the beauty of these things men assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. And if men were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is he who formed them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.)… Afterward it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but they live in great strife due to ignorance, and they call such great evils peace. For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, pollution of souls, sex perversion, disorder in marriage, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil. For their worshipers either rave in exultation, or prophesy lies, or live unrighteously, or readily commit perjury; for because they trust in lifeless idols they swear wicked oaths and expect to suffer no harm. But just penalties will overtake them on two counts: because they thought wickedly of God in devoting themselves to idols, and because in deceit they swore unrighteously through contempt for holiness. For it is not the power of the things by which men swear, but the just penalty for those who sin, that always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous.)”

See the similarities between Paul's hyperbolic rant in Romans 1 and the similar rant that most likely preceded it in the Wisdom of Solomon? In both cases the message is that worshiping idols is stupid and insults the invisible creator of all things, who then turns people over to acting like lawless animals. Randal agrees such passages do not apply to modern day atheists who don't worship idols, nor do modern day atheists have a holy book, not even Darwin's Origin. Nor is Paul and the author of The Wisdom of Solomon discussing common ancestry as modern day atheistic evolutionists might. Paul mentions people worshiping birds which aren't even in the line of human descent.

Something I don't recall whether Randal discussed fully but which I hope he will expand on in future works is how conservative Christians, especially new converts, tend to approach the Bible, especially the New Testament. In my experience it appears like they view it as a personal love letter from God to them. That tends to bias them toward finding something “more” in Romans 1 than merely an ancient dismissal of ancient practices of idolatry. If the Bible is a letter written from God to them personally then can one chuck out large sections, especially long loud hyperbolic warnings and condemnations, as only being fit for some ancient time and ancient reader?Therefore conservative Christians are likely to treat Romans 1 as if it must have some teaching or practical modern day application, or at least a deep metaphorical or analogical meaning, and by God they will discover it, whatever they can wring out of it and connect with something current or relevant, otherwise it is a relatively useless long loud rant about stuff that mainly first century Christians, (and Christian missionaries in India—a land still filled with idols) should be concerned with.

Hence, conservative Christians have difficulty imagining why God would have ensured the canonization of every story, teaching, and passage found in the Protestant Bible used by modern day conservative Christians if it wasn't all divinely profitable for study, even more so than any other book ever written? Such a view is also tacitly endorsed by conservative Christian clergy who spend lifetimes straining to squeeze timeless moral, theological or even scientific lessons for modern day believers out of even the most confusing, densest, vaguest or darkest, stories and passages in the Bible. Some long winded sermons even revolve around less well attested meanings or usages of a single phrase, noun or verb in a single Bible passage; or they might even revolve around the tense of an ancient Greek verb in the New Testament with such sermons being wrapped up with a glowing tribute to the authority of Christian Scripture above and beyond any merely earthly authority, lessons, experiments, or teachings.

One can therefore see how and why the conservative Christian finds it more than a little tempting to interpret Romans 1 as being packed with modern day relevance, and interpret it as a rant useful against modern atheism and evolution. Such a mindset is also tempted to view the condemnation in Paul's letter to the Romans of two women burning for each other with the fact that that still happens today. So to their minds Paul might just as well be speaking about modern day atheistic lesbians who are pro-evolution. Unfortunately it doesn't occur to many conservative Christians that same-sex urges have persisted for millennia for reasons other than idolatry or the theory of evolution being taught in school. One might also consider that ancient Israelites banned same-sex encounters with an instant death penalty, which may imply that it takes quite a harsh punishment effort to try and reduce such urges—even among ancient Israelites who were not modern day atheists nor evolutionists.

Conservative Christians are perhaps most tempted to interpret Romans 1 as a condemnation of atheism in the section which states that idolaters actively suppress the self evident truth in themselves that the power and divine nature of God is clearly seen through what has been made, and therefore they are without excuse:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”

This idea of Paul's echoes a widespread Old Testament motif in which various aspects of creation are depicted (in the book of Job or Proverbs) as illustrating Yahweh's power and glory to uphold or maintain them, or, creation itself is depicted as singing praises to Yahweh's power and glory. Conservative Christians who defend the narrow “rebellion theses” might then adjust their interpretation and argue that “If idolaters in Paul's day were suppressing such a major truth about what creation is revealing to everyone how much more so might modern day atheists be suppressing such a truth? Atheists appear even more deaf and blind to such a truth than those who worship the sin, moon, stars, or other living things.”

I am not sure how Randal would reply to the adjustment I suggested that conservative Christians make to try and employ Romans 1 as an inspired cudgel with which to beat down modern day atheism. But my own reply to such an argument would be to ask what evidence Old Testament writers actually cited from nature that Yahweh created it and upheld it? They believed Yahweh held the earth in place so that it would not be moved, and that Yahweh guided the constellations through the sky in their season (see the book of Job), but do such statements constitute self evident evidence of any sort? What about the Psalmist praising Yahweh for giving Ravens and lions their food when we know how often birds starve to death in nature, quite often in fact, and how lions eat other creatures, so I guess Yahweh “satisfies the hunger of every animal” by often giving it other animals to eat, including feeding the lowly Staph bacterium human flesh. As for passages about all creation singing praises to Yahweh, what kind of self evident evidence do such passages provide?

Similar boastful claims were made in the ancient world concerning high gods other than Yahweh and their ability to create and maintain the world both structurally and ethically. I cite examples in both the text and endnotes of my chapter in The Christian Delusion, in a chapter titled, “The Cosmology of the Bible,” that features a two page chart of parallel claims.

In short, Paul appears to be boasting in Romans 1 about self evident evidence that never was self evident, not even to ancient Israelites who seem to have merely mimicked the all too common sky high praises being doled out to other high moral gods of surrounding nations. Look up henotheism in the ancient near east on the web (also Google: ancient near east scrivenings).

Lastly, concerning Romans 1 and the parallel passages and ideas found in The Wisdom of Solomon, one should note the hyperbolic negative language used in both writings concerning how willfully blind and full of evil all Gentile idolaters are, and by implication how wonderful the Jewish religion, and/or Christianity is. Such high powered name calling probably owes not a little bit to the fact the Jews resented being conquered so many times, and by mere idolaters who had developed far more impressive in many ways than the culture the Jews themselves had developed. If it wasn't the Babylonians invading Yahweh's people, it was the Greeks, then the Romans, so damn all those idolaters. (Though the Jews did love the Persian emperor Cyrus who allowed Jews exiled by the Babylonians to return to Israel. In fact the Jews called the Persian king a messiah or anointed one, the only non-Jewish messiah mentioned in the Bible. And scholars point out ways the Persian religion most likely impressed the Jews and plausibly led the Jews from henotheism and monolatry toward monotheism, as well as toward a belief in a general bodily resurrection.)

Of course in opposition to the so-called endless evils of idolaters one ought to take a closer look at Judaism's bloody history, the conquests allegedly commanded by Yahweh, or the long list of offenses demanding capital punishments in ancient Judaism, and endless temple sacrifices of animals, and realize that in some respects Judaism was less enlightened than many Greek and Roman philosophical schools of thought and their philosophical approach to the gods. Nor did the allegedly God-blessed Israelites excel at a host of important practices and inventions necessary for civilization that we owe principally to ancient non-Jewish idol-filled cultures.

In summation, I hope more conservative Christians of all denominations get a chance to read and ponder Randal's book, though I suspect that the broad “rebellion thesis” I mentioned above, rather than the narrow one that Randal focuses on in his book, is still something that will continue to divide not only Christians and atheists, but Christians with other Christians whose theologies and Bible interpretations or holy rites and practices differ. Because labeling other people or their ideas as signs of rebelling against God's holy kingdom (or as signs of being inspired by antiChrist) seems guaranteed to raise the bar of interpersonal disagreements rather than lower it. Randal proposes what he calls a stance of hopeful universalism as a calming influence, but I suspect that the apocalyptic “us versus them,” “sheep versus goats,” “early arrivers to the feast versus those who arrive late and are locked out,” “Lazarus versus Dives,” “followers of Jesus versus members of their own earthly family,” “Jesus versus Satan,” “Christ versus antiChrist,” “believers versus those who are damned already,” “eater of the body and blood of Jesus versus non-eater who has no life within them” passages in the Bible are more numerous and more firmly embedded in the New Testament, than Randal is willing to admit, along with the eternal punishment passages. In contrast, universalism passages appear fewer and further between, which has always been a weakness of arguments for Christian universalism.

And Randal is not a universalist himself, he just hopes universalism might be true, and wishes more Christians openly expressed that as their fondest hope as well, while apparently keeping in mind the very real and more orthodox option that eternal damnation is also a very real and dire theological claim. Quite a knife's edge theological position I would say, maintaining hope of universalism but also fear that many will be damned eternally. So one entertains fearsome troubling thoughts, constantly dousing them with a watered down kind of hope rarely mentioned in the Bible, a hope that extinguishes the fire of such fears, but not the many live embers throughout the New Testament (and the inter-testamental book of Daniel, and other inter-testamental Jewish writings though they are non-canonical—but reading them one can trace outlines of where and when the idea of eternal punishment entered Judaism and how Christians adopted and adapted such ideas).

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Tyler Cowen on "Why I Don't Believe in God" and Ross Douthat on "Should Tyler Cowen Believe in God?"

Tyler Cowen

Ross Douthat, the 37 year old Catholic New York Timesʼ wunderkind op ed columnist is on a quest to save intellectual conservatism, and tried to lead prof. Tyler Cowen at George Mason University toward the Christian fold or at least back toward classical theism, because Tyler recently wrote, Why I Donʼt Believe in God.

In response, Ross wrote, Should Tyler Cowen Believe in God?

In so far as famous letter exchanges go (like More-Tyndale, or Burgh-Spinoza) their exchange was light and light-hearted, but if I may interject:

Dear Ross Douthat, Your argument in favor of “anthropomorphism on the surface” seems less than likely to lead Tyler to join the religious fold if only because there are some horrendous anthropomorphically depicted “acts of God” in the Bible. No doubt one can imagine God as something other than a physical man sitting on a physical throne above a solid firmament as in the book of Ezekiel, but to imagine God as drowning human children, pregnant women and animals in a worldwide flood, or imagining God commanding that his followers bloody their swords murdering entire cities and then threatening to wipe his own people off the face of the earth if they donʼt do just that (see Deuteronomy), or imagining angels tossing people against their will into a lake of fire whose smoke rises forever, or God inviting people to a party only to lock them out forever if they arrive late, or God commanding that his enemies be brought before him and be slaughtered before his eyes, or God commanding that the servant who didn't do his master's will should be beaten with many stripes (the latter four examples are from the New Testament, not the Old one), that's the more central problem with a god whose actions appear bloody human in the sense of their vengefulness, jealousy, impatience, anger. For far more extensive reasons why the “anthropomorphism” is not merely “on the surface,” please see see Dr. Jako Gerickeʼs Can God exist if Yahweh doesnʼt?, and Prof. Hector Avalosʼs The Bad Jesus, Love, and the Parochialism of New Testament Ethics.

You invite Tyler to “give religious commitment a slightly longer look.” But there are plenty who gave Christian religious commitment a very long look and left the fold after spending years or decades in the pulpit or monastery, or in Christian radio broadcasting, or Christian politics, or Christian apologetics, or as Old or New Testament scholars. Not to mention cases in which the children of Christian clergy, or children of writers for Christianity Today, or children of Christian apologists raised to early adulthood immersed in Christian family and faith, grew more moderate/liberal than their parents or even left the fold. In short, questions regarding religious beliefs, “special revelation,” as well as the question of how and why beliefs change, appear to be endless. See this sampling of about 300 first hand published testimonies, most of them recent, of ministers and others who gave their Christian religious commitments a long look before entertaining greater doubts and/or leaving the fold, click here. There is also an online piece that replies to the claim some apologists make that the Christian religious experience is “unique.”

Nor need one become an atheist who claims that everyoneʼs religious experiences are false in order to ask, How can God (or whatever is out there) expect us to know what to make of the diversity of religious beliefs and miracle stories? We are presented with a mixed bag of evidence.

As for the credit you give Christianity for the worldʼs ethical advancement, C. S. Lewis admitted: “I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse… Conversion may make of one who was, if no better, no worse than an animal, something like a devil.” Lewis also admitted that there exists a wealth of practical moral wisdom that has provided moral inspiration for thousands of years that he called “the Tao.” So why not seek the best in every book and every person? In other words, does “Jesus” have to get “all the glory?” Schools need not teach classes in religion in order to teach classes in ethics featuring the world's practical moral wisdom from religious and non-religious sources, both ancient and modern, & our children might be better off. But some might cavil at the thought of having their children taught “heathen ethics” in school, or having Jesus's sayings mentioned in the same breath with “mere moral teachers.” So perhaps it is the religious element that has left schools bereft of vital universal ethical teaching, the same folks who wish everyone else to focus on “the words of God” in one “holy book” alone. Theirs.

You claim that “religiously-infused societies produce better art and architecture.” But such a claim is nebulous if you are claiming something as vague as “religious-infused societies,” which includes everything from ancient ziggurats and Aztec pyramids to Gothic cathedrals; and Egyptian, Greek, Roman temples and statuary to Renaissance artists and Dutch realists—many of whom didnʼt seem particularly religious but who were paid by the religious (look at the case of Leonardo da Vinci). Today, the most collaborative form of art on the planet, and the most visually and aurally arresting, is the art of film-making that envelopes an audience and tugs at their minds and hearts even when the audience's religious beliefs are diverse or completely lacking. People no longer rely primarily on Bible stories to explain the world, or move them. Children no longer are allowed to only play with a Noahʼs Ark toy on Sundays as was the practice in Americaʼs past. The imagination of human beings is now combining and recombining stories and themes from all the worldʼs stories, in a sense, evolving new ones just as evolution did to the genes of all the species on this planet. See The Cultural Divide Between the Ancient Near East and the Wealth of Modern Knowledge/Information — Where Do We Get Our Answers From Today? What Expands Our Minds the Most Today?

You admit the “conformity problem” is universal, but it remains especially acute in the case of your religion which claims it possesses the worldʼs only divinely inspired guide book, and a Holy Spirit to lead them into truth, and new hearts to guide them, and have the prayer of Jesus himself for unity per the fourth Gospel. You must admit that no other group on earth has as much supernatural guidance? Yet the history of Christianity is a history of schisms too numerous to mention over nearly any topic (including the rise of many socially cohesive non-Christian movements that make being a Christian that much tougher—religions that God could have stopped from arising in the first place, such as Islam whose numbers nearly equal and might soon exceed the number of Christians worldwide). If God was concerned with unity and had provided a holy guide book, the Spiritʼs guidance, and new hearts, how did all of those schisms happen, why wouldnʼt God have intervened to at least prevent many Christian schisms from happening? At the very least could easily conclude there has been little evidence of supernatural input when it comes to the way Christianities continued to branch off like a Darwinian tree of life, some branches going extinct, others flourishing over time, and rival trees of religion evolving alongside.

Lastly, might I share this piece on why Christianity raises as many intellectual and historical questions as it claims to answer, if not more

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Christian Comedians Should Leave Satire and Sarcasm to the Experts

Christian Comedians

Fascinating Fact: Perhaps the most famous wit in Catholicism, G. K. Chesterton (whose book The Everlasting Man even had a lot to do with the decision by C. S. Lewis to convert) was friends with leading non-Christian writers and thinkers of his day including George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells even though Chesterton debated them both. Chesterton even wrote a loving letter to his atheist and anti-Catholic friend, H.G. Wells, saying that he would get into heaven not by being one of Chesterton's friends but for all the good he and his works did for humanity. Chesterton's letter where he wrote that to Wells can be by read here.Chesterton even wrote a novel about a Christian and atheist who wanted to duel to the death but later grew to be close friends (The Ball and the Cross).

But leaving aside Chesterton (who was at least a borderline universalist), there do not appear to be many Evangelical Christian humorists or satirists up to say the level of even a Dave Barry, let alone many who could keep up with Voltaire, Twain, Mencken, or the stand up routines of Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, Eddie Izzard [his concert titled, Glorious], Rowan Atkinson, George Carlin, or movies by Kevin Smith (Dogma) and Monty Python (The Life of Brian & The Meaning of Life).

I would add that the opposite of fanaticism is not a rival fanatical spirit but simply acknowledging doubts in general and allowing bygones to be bygones, i.e., allowing people to start over, and attempt to get to know each other again.

For such reasons I tend to doubt that beliefs determine ones eternal destiny. Because even interpreting other peopleʼs ideas when communicating with them, people that you know, who live in the same time and era as yourself is fraught with difficulty, let alone “biblical exegesis,” and trying to make “doctrines and dogmas” sound like nothing but pure rationality to other folks.

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Mark Twain on the Problem of Evil

Mark Twain and Intelligent Design

“Little Bessie,” The Myth of Providence by Mark Twain

“In His wisdom and mercy the Lord sends us afflictions to discipline us and make us better…All of them. None of them comes by accident; He alone sends them, and always out of love for us, and to make us better, my child.”

“Did He give Billy Norris the typhus, mamma?”

“Yes.”

“What for?”

“Why, to discipline him and make him good.”

“But he died, mamma, and so it couldnʼt make him good.”

“Well, then, I suppose it was for some other reason. We know it was a good reason, whatever it was.”

After a pause: “Did He make the roof fall on the stranger that was trying to save the crippled old woman from the fire, mamma?”

“Yes, my child. Wait! Donʼt ask me why, because I donʼt know. I only know it was to discipline some one, or be a judgment upon somebody, or to show His power.”

“That drunken man that stuck a pitchfork into Mrs. Welchʼs baby when…”

“Never mind about it, you neednʼt go into particulars; it was to discipline the child - that much is certain, anyway.”

“Mamma, Mr. Burgess said in his sermon that billions of little creatures are sent into us to give us cholera, and typhoid, and lockjaw, and more than a thousand other sicknesses and, mamma, does He send them?”

“Oh, certainly, child, certainly. Of course.”

“What for?”

“Oh, to discipline us! Havenʼt I told you so, over and over again?”

“Itʼs awful cruel, mamma! And silly! And if I…”

“Hush, oh hush! Do you want to bring the lightning?”

“You know the lightning did come last week, mamma, and struck the new church, and burnt it down. Was it to discipline the church?”

(Wearily) “Oh, I suppose so.”

“But it killed a hog that wasnʼt doing anything. Was it to discipline the hog, mamma?”

“Dear child, donʼt you want to run out and play a while? If you would like to…”

“Mamma, Mr. Hollister says there isnʼt a bird or fish or reptile or any other animal that hasnʼt got an enemy that Providence has sent to bite it and chase it and pester it, and kill it, and suck its blood and discipline it and make it good and religious. Is that true, mamma, because if it is true, why did Mr. Hollister laugh at it?”

“That Hollister is a scandalous person, and I donʼt want you to listen to anything he says.”

“Why, mamma, he is very interesting, and I think he tries to be good. He says the wasps catch spiders and cram them down their nests in the ground - alive, mama! - and there they live and suffer days and days and days, and hungry little baby wasps chew the spiderʼs legs and gnaw into their bellies all the time, to make them good and religious and praise God for His infinite mercies. I think Mr. Hollister is just lovely, and ever so kind; for when I asked him if he would treat a spider like that, he said he hoped to be damned if he would; and then he…”

“My child! oh, do for goodnessʼ sake…”

“And mamma, he says the spider is appointed to catch the fly, and drive her fangs into his bowels, and sucks and sucks and sucks his blood, to discipline him and make him a Christian; and whenever the fly buzzes his wings with the pain and misery of it, you can see by the spiderʼs grateful eye that she is thanking the Giver of All Good for…well, sheʼs saying grace, as he says; and also, he…”

“Oh, arenʼt you ever going to get tired chattering! If you want to go out and play…”

“Mamma, he says himself that all troubles and pains and miseries and rotten diseases and horrors and villainies are sent to us in mercy and kindness to discipline us; and he says it is the duty of every father and mother to help Providence, every way they can; and says they canʼt do it by just scolding and whipping, for that wonʼt answer, it is weak and no good - Providenceʼs invention for disciplining us and the animals is the very brightest idea that ever was. Mamma, brother Eddie needs disciplining, right away; and I know where you can get the smallpox for him, and the itch, and the diphtheria, and bone-rot, and heart disease, and tuberculosis, and…
Dear mama, have you fainted?”

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14 Biology Lessons for I.D.ists (Intelligent Design advocates)

  1. We donʼt see genes or organisms simply popping into existence out of nowhere. They all appear to have natural lineages. Connections abound in nature, not disconnections and miracles. Hereʼs what Intelligent Design advocates WANT to say happened, notice how unconcerned they are with continuing to examine all the connections in nature, and how eager they are to promote disconnections in nature and miracles:

    “Michael Behe told us his hypothesis a few years ago. We both took part in a week–long lecture series on the intelligent design debate at Hillsdale College. After Michael Beheʼs lecture, some of us pressed him to explain exactly how ‘irreducibly complex’ mechanisms arose—mechanisms that cannot, according to Behe, be explained as products of evolution by natural selection. He repeatedly refused to answer. But after a long night of drinking he finally answered: ‘A puff of smoke!’ A physicist in the group asked, Do you mean a suspension of the laws of physics? Yes, Behe answered. Not very persuasive as a scientific answer.”
    RBH July 9, 2012

    Reminds me of what Berlinski wrote:

    “Before the Cambrian era, a brief 600 million years ago, very little is inscribed in the fossil record; but then, signaled by what I imagine as a spectral puff of smoke and a deafening ta–da!, an astonishing number of novel biological structures come into creation, and they come into creation at once.” —Berlinski, “The Deniable Darwin” (June 1996), Commentary magazine. Oh, and Berlinski and Stephen C. Meyer are wrong about the Cambrian providing evidence of I.D., simply repeating an old creationist lie.

    There is no evidence of things popping into existence via Beheʼs puff of smoke. But there is endless evidence of natural connections, i.e., of atoms and molecules naturally interacting and nudging each other, and organisms naturally replicating, dividing into individuals and new species, with only a select number of each new generation of organisms passing along their genes to future generations—the rest unable to leap over the many hurdles nature puts in the way (from zygote to the age of sexual reproduction), and hence a large percentage usually die off or leave behind smaller proportions of offspring than others.

    Compare the pro–I.D. stance with that of BIOLOGOS. The latter was founded by a leader of the Human Genome Project, and it is an organization of Christians who are scientists who support evolution and critically analyze I.D. arguments.

    Biologist Jeffery P. Schloss used to be a senior member of the pro–I.D. Discovery Institute but left after the Instituteʼs film, Expelled, was released, and he wrote a lengthy review and rebuttal of the filmʼs arguments. Schloss has since joined BIOLOGOS.

    Biologist Dennis Venema used to be pro–I.D. but joined BIOLOGOS, and explains why.

  2. DNA does not copy itself perfectly. Study all the mutations that happen during meiosis. Study the variety of known mutations and mutagenic substances inside cells, and mutagentic energies that enter cells from the outside. Most mutations do not appear to be guided, and most mutations appear to be neutral, no great benefit or harm.

  3. Speaking of genetic diversity, all the cells in your body are not uniquely your own. Your DNA and identity are not as entwined as once thought. In fact most people have multiple genomes floating around inside them. Nature is more malleable than we previously thought (speaking of natureʼs malleability, one might even note instances of whole genome duplication events with subsequent mutations and whittling down).

  4. Some people have undergone rare mutations even today that lead to things like people who are super tasters, super hearers, or super seers who can see with greater resolution, or who can distinguish a wider spectra of colors. Such people exist, do some googling. One can also read about the evolution of our own tri–color vision, related to a gene duplication event in our monkey ancestors, apparently humans with greater color detecting abilities underwent a recent added gene duplication event with subsequent minor mutations and the mutated protein molecule in their retina now absorbs slightly different spectra of light, adding to their color sensing spectra.

    Which isnʼt to say we are ALL headed in the direction of becoming super seers and super tasters, etc. The mutation that led to the ability to digest milk sugar spread quickly after the domestication of cattle and the drinking of milk began in one part of the world, but has not yet spread to everyone on earth, especially some people in parts of Asia.

    Also, evolution via mutation being what it is, some species are better endowed than the human species in key cognitive regions:

  5. 14 Biology Lessons for I.D.ists

    If I.D. were true and every single mosquito had the same intelligently amazing non–Darwinian ability to adapt, why was DDT still so great at killing millions of them until that odd random mutation took decades to spread throughout the gene pool? Keep in mind also how many mosquito eggs a female lays each generation and how many of them simply perished without leaving behind their genes. A mosquito happened to be born with multiple copies of the esterase gene that helps detoxify DDT. That one mosquito got lucky. We also now know that there is more than one mutation that can accomplish greater survival of DDT (I.D.ists employ phony statistical arguments, as if thereʼs only a single target and a single arrow that has to hit the exact center of that target, and then they ask, “what are the odds?” But nature doesnʼt work that way. Nature has redundancies, and keeps mutating. And as I said most mutations are neutral). For instance a cotton budworm at some point was born with a mutation that changed the target of the DDT poison. A housefly was born with a mutation that altered the proteins that transport the DDT poison. So we know a variety of possible mutations could reduce the killing effects of DDT, and only one of those different mutations has to occur in order for the organism to develop some resistance, and of course the organism that survives gets to continue passing that gene along while all the rest that did not experience that mutation died or left behind far fewer offspring.

    We donʼt know all the possible mutations that might allow Plasmodium (the malaria parasite) to survive anti–malaria. drugs either. See this recent Take Down Of Beheʼs Argument That Malariaʼs Resistance To A Drug Could Not Have Evolved, “New research on the evolution of drug resistance in malaria contradicts Michael Beheʼs claims in The Edge of Evolution.”

    See also, “Natural selection in the time of cholera. Using a recently developed computational method, the researchers have been able to detect patterns of strong natural selection left behind in the genomes of a population that has been contending with cholera for generations.”

  6. Mutations come in many sizes, from simple point mutations in DNA to the duplication of whole genes or other parts of the genome, to whole chromosome duplication events, to whole genome duplication events. Once you have such extra genetic material you have redundant genes for evolution to continue working on, usually via neutral mutations, since as I said most mutations are neither horribly deleterious nor marvelously beneficial.

  7. Another way to gain extra genetic material is via swapping DNA packets like bacteria do continually. Or in the case of the human genome via invasions of viruses or bacteria whose RNA or DNA gets incorporated into a human germ cell in the gonads (testes/ovaries), which is the only way such extra DNA will get passed on to future generations, i.e., if that particular egg or sperm forms a viable zygote in future.

  8. In many cases there are not only neutral mutations, but also degrees of functionality or dysfunctionality when it comes to proteins formed by mutated DNA. Itʼs not a simple matter of the protein being either on or off, active or inactive. Thereʼs degrees. For instance, a simple frame shift mutation in one bacterium allowed it to obtain some energy from partially digesting a man–made substance, nylon, reducing it to a gooey slime. This bacterium was discovered in a bin of discarded nylon at a factory. But it does not break down the nylon wholly, only partially, so it is a partially effective mutation. Mutations need not start out wholly effective, and as I said, neutral mutations are slightly changing the genome all the time as well, raising the chances for unforeseen future changes.

  9. There is a known estimate of human genome mutations that accumulate per generation. I believe this estimate has been further substantiated by the 1000 genomes project which analyzed the whole genomes of over 1000 individuals from around the world. And that estimate of naturally occurring mutations per generation greatly exceeds what would have been needed to provide enough mutations to transform our great ape ancestors into modern day human beings over a period of about five million years. (Keep in mind that the genetic distance from modern day humans to modern day chimpanzees is greater than the distance from either of us to our common ancestor because both humans and chimps have continued to mutate in their own unique ways after splitting off from a common ancestor. And even though the genetic distance has grown between us and chimps, we are still as close to chimp DNA as the DNA of sibling species of fruit flies are to one another.)

  10. All living things are mashups and mixes of genetic material that has been traded between replicators over untold eons. The human genome contains both viral and bacterial genes, and the amount of viral genetic material that has wheedled its way inside our cells is equal to or exceeds the number of genes that make us peculiarly human.

  11. The simplest replicators are not viruses but transposons, transposable genetic elements (TE) or retrotransposons which are DNA sequences that can change its sequence within the genome sometimes causing or reversing mutations and altering the cellʼs genome size. These transposons have been found inside viruses that infect other viruses, which in turn affect amoebas that infect human beings. As one microbiologist put it, “I think itʼs difficult to see where one organism begins and another one ends, we are only beginning to appreciate how intertwined these layers of organisms are in large flora and fauna.” [from “The Dexter of Parasites” on the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast for Nov 14, 2013, the podcast also discusses a species of wasp that lays its eggs inside caterpillars that have already been infected by wasp eggs, but the larva of this species of wasp not only eats the caterpillar but also the larva of the other wasp species whose eggs hatched earlier inside the caterpillar, basically hot parasite on parasite action]

  12. We even know via experiments that a single strand of RNA (usually taken from a virus) can make more strands that then make more strands in test tubes filled with that strand & some basic building block molecules & a little zinc as a catalyst. So a single strand of RNA can self–replicate. They even put some RNA dissolving chemicals in one of those test tubes (a dilute amount of chemical that was poisonous to RNA) and then siphoned out of the tube any RNA strands that survived and placed them in a fresh test tube to produce more strands, and then slowly increased the dosage of the poison, and then took out any surviving RNA strands and placed them in a fresh test tube to make more RNA, etc., until an RNA strand that was more highly resistant to the poison was produced, demonstrating the naturally growing adaptability of a strand of RNA to poisonous chemicals over several generations and via a selection of surviving strands.

  13. Viruses. Viruses are so adaptable they can have either RNA or DNA as their genetic material (in other words their nucleic acid may be single– or double–stranded). The entire infectious virus particle, called a virion, consists of nucleic acid covered by an outer shell of protein. The simplest viruses contain only enough RNA or DNA to encode 4 proteins. But the largest known virus, the Pandora salinus virus, is larger than many bacteria and contains more than 2,500 genes! Nor do viruses have proof reading mechanisms, so more mutations occur in them each generation than other replicators on earth. Also, giant viruses are known to be infected by much smaller viruses that invade them! Hot virus on virus action.

    Viruses are the most abundant replicators on earth, with each drop of healthy sea water containing exponentially larger numbers of viruses than either bacteria (prokaryotes) or single–celled organisms (eukaryotes). Viruses attack other viruses, prokaryotes, eukaryotes, and the Archaea (single–celled organisms that were recently discovered to constitute their own separate kingdom of living things neither bacterial nor eukaryotic).

  14. Bacteria. Most bacteria are larger than most viruses. Bacteria passively absorb genetic material they happen to run into. And they actively exchange packets of genetic material. This means they are filled with loads of odd genetic material at all times. And keep in mind how many countless viruses and bacteria are perishing every second on earth (never passing along their genetic material to future generations, while others are busy producing far more offspring than others) and you begin to realize just how much genetic shuffling and natural selecting has been going on for a long time. In fact for the majority of biological history on earth there was nothing but single–celled organisms on earth. Multicelluar organisms havenʼt been around nearly as long as single–celled organisms. So however amazing the internal architecture of single–celled organisms, they had a long long time to develop that internal architecture—far longer than the time multi–cellular organism have been around.

See also

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Was Benjamin Franklin a Christian? Or to be more precise, did Benjamin Franklin convert to “true Christianity” in middle-age as Christian apologist Bill Fortenberry suggests? (HT: James Patrick Holding J.P.Holding)

Was Benjamin Franklin a Christian?

Before proceeding, one might ask, does such a question matter? If you are a Christian apologist who seeks to prove that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, it might. But if one is trying to prove that converting to Christianity provides a great boon to every individualʼs life in this case Franklinʼs, there is little evidence of him changing much if at all (provided he did convert, which is the question at issue). Obviously one can convert to Christianity and not develop half as curious an intellect and remarkable career as Benʼs, nor grow half as tolerant of othersʼ religious beliefs as Ben was. Benʼs friends included adherents to all sects of Christianity as well as heretical sects (Socians, Arians), Unitarians (like Joseph Priestly, whom Ben called “honest”—and Ben lauded, supported and attended the opening of the first official Unitarian Church in England). Ben even befriended non-Christian deists and atheists and admired the teachings of Confucius.

Franklin also supported and praised the erection of a new meeting house in Philadelphia that he hoped would “not accommodate any particular [religious] sect, but the inhabitants in general. So that even if the Muslim ruler of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mahometanism [Islam] to us, he would find a pulpit at his service,” because as Franklin wrote, “If the Turks [Muslims], believing us in the wrong, as we think them, should out of the same charitable disposition, send a missionary to preach Mahometanism to us, shouldnʼt we in the same manner give him free liberty of preaching his doctrine?” When a trustee involved in the meeting houseʼs construction died—leaving an imbalance in the religious sects contributing to its construction—it was decided that Franklin take his place because Franklin was a man of “no sect.” (But after the meeting house was finished Franklinʼs tolerant view did not prevail and only preachers from a limited number of Protestant sects were allowed to use the facility—no Catholics, Jews or people of non-Christian religions.)

Franklinʼs religious tolerance can also be inferred from his dislike of the oath that all office-holders of the colony of Pennsylvania, including Franklin, had to sign prior to the American Revolution when Protestant Britain ruled the American colonies. The oath ran in part, “Each of us for himself do solemnly and sincerely profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Eternal Son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, one God, blessed for evermore. And we do acknowledge the Holy Scripture to be by divine inspiration,” and “I solemnly promise and declare that… our heart abhor, detest and renounce as impious and heretical that damnable doctrine and position that princes who are excommunicated and deprived by the Pope… may be deposed or murdered by their subjects,” and “solemnly and sincerely profess and testify that in the sacrament of the Lordʼs Supper there is no transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ,” and that “the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other saint, or the sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous.”

After 1776, when the colonies revolted against Britain and began setting up their own governments Franklin urged that no oaths of political office in Pennsylvania should demand one believe in sectarian religious views, instead, Ben urged that people be allowed to worship “according to the dictates of their own consciences, no one should be compelled to attend religious worship, or to erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry against their free will and consent. Nor can any man who acknowledges the being of a God [a belief that would include heretics and deists] be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship.” Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights (composed when Franklin was the leader of that state constitutional convention).

However, the state constitutional convention was not content with Benʼs statement and added a Religious Claus that demanded belief in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. The Religious Claus stated that office holders in Pennsylvania must swear: “I DO believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be give by Divine Inspiration.” Not pleased by the Religious Claus, Franklin wrote a letter to a friend, “I agreed with you in sentiments concerning the Old Testament, and thought the Clause in our Constitution, which required the Members of Assembly to declare their belief that the whole of it [the Old Testament] was given by divine Inspiration, had better have been omitted. That I had opposed the Clause but being overpowerʼd by numbers, and fearing what might in future times be added onto it, I insisted on the additional Clause that no further or more extended profession of faith should ever be required.”

Franklin admitted he had doubts about the faithful transmission of the Bible, and doubts about the “inspiration of several things in the Old Testament” that he viewed as “impossible to be given by divine inspiration, such as the praise ascribed to the angel of the Lord of that abominably wicked and detestable action of Jael [see cartoon illustrating some of the difficulties Franklin had with the ethical lesson embedded in the tale of Jael]… If the rest of the Book were like that, I should rather… renounce the whole.” Ben also doubted Jesusʼs divinity and wrote numerous words about virtue/good works being of far greater importance than oneʼs religious beliefs.

Concerning Franklinʼs religious journey, he was raised Presbyterian but in his youth joined a club of writers known for lampooning the clergy of Massachusetts in articles published in the New-England Courant. Later he was drawn to Deism. He also studied Confucianism. In fact it was Ben who first introduced Confucius to the American colonies. In 1737, Franklin published a series of papers “From the Morals of Confucius” in his weekly magazine The Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin called the Chinese masterʼs philosophy “the gateway through which it is necessary to pass to arrive at the sublimest wisdom.” Franklinʼs list of virtues paralleled Confucian virtues, see Benjamin Franklin and Chinese Civilization. Franklin also mentioned Confuciusʼs plan for positive change in a letter to famed Christian evangelist George Whitefield. And when Rev. Hemphill began to stress the importance of virtue/good works to such a degree that the orthodoxy of the Reverendʼs beliefs were investigated by Christian authorities, Franklin composed several anonymous defenses of the Reverendʼs views. (The Rev. Jedediah Andrews, an elder clergyman who had taken Rev. Hemphill for his assistant, came to view Hemphillʼs sermons as part of a “dreadful plot laid by Satan to root Christianity out of the world,” and charged that the eloquent preacher drew about him only “Free Thinkers, Deists and nothings.”)

Throughout his life Franklin rarely attended church, was never confirmed, nor did he participate in sacraments and ordinances of any church per Prof. David Holmes, author of The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. He held little respect for doctrinal religious beliefs. As Franklin wrote in his autobiography near the end of his life:

“I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and though some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc. appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying-day, I never was without some religious principles; I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the deity, that he made the world, and governed it by his providence; that the most acceptable Service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished and virtue rewarded either here or hereafter; these I esteemʼd the essentials of every religion, and being to be found in all the religions we had in our country I respected them all, though with different degrees of respect as I found them more or less mixed with other articles which without any tendency to inspire, promote or confirm morality, servʼd principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another. This respect to all, with an opinion that the worst had some good effects, induced me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion; and as our province increased in people and new places of worship were continually wanted, and generally erected by voluntary contribution, my mite for such purpose, whatever might be the sect, was never refused.”

With so little respect for church going and doctrine, Franklinʼs family and friends remained concerned that he might not get to heaven, for example…

In 1738 Franklin wrote in response to his parentsʼ concern, “My mother grieves that one of her sons is an Arian, another an Arminian… I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded he holds none that are dangerous; which I hope is the case with me.”

In 1740 the famed Christian evangelist George Whitefield wrote to Franklin, “I do not despair of your seeing the reasonableness of Christianity. Apply to God; be willing to do the divine will, and you shall know it.”

In 1743, Franklin wrote in response to his dearest sister Jennyʼs [Jane Franklin Mecom] concern, “I took your Admonition very kindly, and was far from being offended at you for it… There are some things in your New England [Presbyterian] doctrines and worship which I do not agree with, but I do not therefore condemn them or desire to shake your belief or practice of them. We may dislike things that are nevertheless right in themselves. I would only have you make me the same allowances, and have a better opinion both of morality and your brother… If you can perceive the fruit to be good, donʼt terrify yourself that the tree may be evil.”

In 1764, replying to the famed Christian evangelist George Whitefield, Franklin wrote, “Your frequently repeated wishes and prayers for my eternal as well as temporal happiness are very obliging. I can only thank you for them, and offer you mine in return. I have myself no doubts that I shall enjoy as much of both as is proper for me. That Being who gave me existence, and through almost sixty years has been continually showering his favors upon me, whose very chastisements have been blessings to me, can I doubt that he loves me? And if he loves me, can I doubt that he will go on to take care of me not only here but hereafter? This to some may seem presumption; to me it appears the best grounded hope; hope of the Future; built on experience of the past.”

In 1768 Whitefield wrote to Franklin, continuing to attempt to convert him, adding, “Your daughter I find is beginning the world. I wish you joy from the bottom of my heart. You and I shall soon go out of it—before long we shall see it burnt—Angels shall summon us to attend on the funeral of time—And (Oh transporting thought!) we shall see eternity rising out of its ashes. That you and I may be in the happy number of those who in the midst of the tremendous final blaze shall cry Amen—Hallelujah—is the hearty prayer of, my dear Doctor…”

In 1769 Franklin wrote Whitefield, “I see with you [we agree] that our affairs are not well managed by our rulers here below [on earth]; I wish I could believe with you, that they are well attended to by those above [in heaven]; I rather suspect, from certain circumstances, that though the general government of the universe is well administered, our particular little affairs [here on earth] are perhaps below notice, and left to take the chance of human prudence [wisdom] or imprudence, as either may happen to be uppermost. It is, however, an uncomfortable thought, and I leave it.”

In 1790, a year before his death, Franklin published Part Four of his autobiography in which he wrote of his relationship with the famed Christian evangelist George Whitefield the following, “We had no religious connection. He used indeed sometimes to pray for my conversion but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard. Ours was a mere civil friendship, sincere on both sides, and lasted to his death. The following instance will show something of the terms on which we stood. Upon one of his [Whitefieldʼs] arrivals from England he wrote to me that he should come soon to Philadelphia, but knew not where he could lodge. My answer was; You know my house… you will be most heartily welcome. He replied that if I made that kind offer for Christʼs sake, I should not miss of a reward. And I replied, Donʼt let me be mistaken; it was not for Christʼs sake, but for your sake.”

In 1795, Dr. Joseph Priestley (a Unitarian Christian), wrote in his Memoirs of his friend Franklin, “It is much to be lamented, that a man of Dr. Franklinʼs general good character, and great influence, should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done so much as he did to make others unbelievers.”

Now for the question…

Is Fortenberry correct? Can we detect Franklin “Becoming a Christian” circa 1735, during the period when Franklin composed defenses of Reverend Hemphillʼs sermons?

Franklin for his part never denied he was a “Christian” in some completely non-sectarian sense based on his understanding of Jesus as an inspired moral exemplar (but not necessarily God incarnate), and that the teaching of morality was the main thing, the primary point of religion. For instance he wrote in Poor Richardʼs Almanac, “Serving God is Doing good to Man, but Praying is thought an easier Service, and therefore more generally chosen.” As Dr. Joseph Waligore points out “All of the Christian deists [of that era] claimed to be Christian and the vast majority of them claimed they were the only ones advocating the Christianity Jesus taught. A better name for them might be ‘Jesus-centered deists’ because they identified Christianity with Jesusʼ moral teachings.”

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Christian religious historians as well as secular historians continue to doubt that Franklin was a Christian in the same way that orthodox doctrinal believing Christians (especially Evangelicals) believe themselves to be Christians today. See for instance these two pieces both titled, “Was Benjamin Franklin a Christian?”

However, Christian apologist, Bill Fortenberry, suggests in his piece, The Conversion of Benjamin Franklin that Ben “converted” in mid-life circa 1735, based mainly on statements found in Franklinʼs four defenses of Rev. Hemphillʼs preaching, all written the same year. Fortenberry begins by focusing on Franklinʼs use of the term “Our Savior” in one of Franklinʼs early defenses of Rev. Hemphillʼs sermons. But Franklin has the term come out of the mouth of a Presbyterian character he named “S.” who defends Hemphillʼs views against another Presbyterian character named “T.” Franklinʼs character, “S.,” says, “Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher.” But where in Franklinʼs lifetime of writing before or after that one year do you find Ben using the phrase “Our Savior” again? Even Fortenberry admits, “If these are the opinions of Franklin himself, then this dialogue marks the first recorded instance that I know of in which he referred to Jesus as the Savior and as the Christ.” Also, Franklin knew that a Presbyterian minister must preach about Jesus as “Savior” or get fired, and Franklin was writing in defense of the Presbyterian minister, so why wouldnʼt Franklin employ the requisite term, speak the lingo, for that is precisely what Franklin knew was necessary in this case to keep Hemphill in the pulpit. The same goes for the other statement Fortenberry mentions, from Franklinʼs piece written the same year titled, A Defense of Mr. Hemphillʼs Observations. Hemphill was charged by his fellow Presbyterian ministers with having preached “against the Doctrine of Christʼs merit and satisfaction.” So Franklin, writing a defense of Hemphill states, “Let us then consider what the scripture doctrine of this affair is, and in a word it is this: Christ by his Death and Sufferings has purchased for us those easy terms and conditions of our acceptance with God, proposed in the Gospel, to wit, faith and repentance: By his death and sufferings, he has assured us of Godʼs being ready and willing to accept of our sincere, though imperfect obedience to his revealed will; By his death and sufferings he has atoned for all sins forsaken and amended, but surely not for such as are wilfully and obstinately persisted in. This is Hemphillʼs notion of this affair [notice that Ben distances himself from declaring such beliefs in Franklinʼs own name], and this he has always preachʼd; and he believes, ʻtis what no wise man will contradict.” Note how Franklin is writing about “the scripture doctrine of this affair” in an intellectually distant fashion. What does Franklin mean by “the scriptural doctrine of this affair” but the Presbyterian scriptural doctrine? Does this mean such doctrine equals Franklinʼs view? I donʼt see how one could leap to such a conclusion because Franklin was never eager to defend either “scripture” or “doctrine,” not before the Hemphill affair and not afterwards. Franklin adds toward the end of this paragraph, “This is Hemphillʼs notion of this affair,” again distancing himself from the matter. Franklin is obviously speaking the lingo to try and keep Hemphill in the pulpit. But Fortenberry sees none of this, only a firm decision on Franklinʼs part to convert to doctrinal Christianity at that point in his life and declare it to the world—well, anonymously declare it in defenses geared toward keeping a morally-fixated minister in the local pulpit preaching sermons that even heretics might enjoy, nothing either new or surprising there.

Fortenberry also remains blind to everything else Franklin has to say in his four defenses of Hemphill written that year, such as Franklinʼs many lines advocating the priority of moral teachings and practices over doctrinal beliefs. Letʼs look at what Fortenberry missed beginning with Franklinʼs anonymously composed work…

Dialogue between Two Presbyterians

As Hemphillʼs ecclesiastical trial began, Franklin came to his defense with an article purporting to be a dialogue between two local Presbyterians. “Mr. S.,” speaking in defense of Hemphillʼs views, and “Mr. T.,” who complains, “I do not love to hear so much of morality [in sermons]; I am sure it will carry no man to heaven.” To which “Mr. S.” replies, “Faith is recommended as a means of producing morality: our savior was a teacher of morality or virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful teacher [of morality and virtue]. Thus faith would be a means of producing morality, and morality of salvation. But that from such faith alone salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian doctrine nor a reasonable one. And I should as soon expect, that my bare believing Mr. Grew to be an excellent teacher of the mathematics, would make me a mathematician, as that believing Christ would itself make a man a Christian.”

Franklin also had Hemphillʼs defender, “Mr. S.” say, “Morality or virtue is the end, faith only a means to obtain that end: and if the end be obtained, it is not matter by what means;” and, “No point of faith is so plain as that morality is our duty, for all sides agree in that. A virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian.”

Now letʼs look at what Franklin says in…

Observations on the Proceedings against Mr. Hemphill

“The Commission reassuming the third Article of Accusation against Mr. Hemphill [notes that] while he amply insists upon Christ as a king and law-giver, giving the best system of Laws, he takes no notice of his making satisfaction to the justice of God, but once barely mentions him as a Savior.” The paragraph [from Hemphillʼs sermons] upon which the censure [of Hemphill] is grounded [is this one]:

“To preach Christ is universally allowed to be the duty of every Christian minister, but what does that mean? It is not to use his name as a charm, to work up the hearers to a warm pitch of enthusiasm, without any foundation in reason to support it: It is not to make his person or his offices incomprehensible: It is not to exalt his glory as a kind condescending savior, to the dishonor of the unlimited goodness of the creator and Father of the universe, who is represented as stern and inexorable, expressing no indulgence to his guilty creatures, but demanding full and rigorous satisfaction for their offences: It is not to encourage undue and presumptuous reliances on his merits and satisfaction to the contempt of virtue and good works. No, but to represent him as a law-giver as well as a saviour, as a preacher of righteousness, as one who hath given us the most noble and complete system of morals enforced by the most substantial and worthy motives; and shows that the whole scheme of our redemption is a doctrine according to godliness.” [from one of Hemphillʼs sermons]

[Franklin then asks]…If the Reader will consider the paragraph [by Hemphill], he will find the whole meaning of it [Hemphillʼs meaning] to be this, We are not to preach up Christ so as to dishonor God the Father, nor are we to make such undue reliances upon his merits as to neglect good works; but we are to look upon him in both characters of saviour and lawgiver; that if we expect he has atoned for our sins, we must sincerely endeavor to obey his laws.”

Note that whether Franklin himself agrees with the Christian idea of atonement via Jesusʼs death is not answered, since this was written primarily in defense of what Hemphill preached. These Observations were published without Franklinʼs name on them, and you can see that Franklinʼs strongest points of agreement with this ministerʼs sermons were with the preacherʼs emphasis on following Jesus as “a preacher of righteousness who hath given us the most noble and compete system of morals.”

Franklin also wrote…

A Defense of Mr. Hemphillʼs Observations

Defending Hemphill, Franklin stated, “Hemphill has said, ‘That what he means in his account of Christianity, is, that our saviorʼs design in coming into the world was to restore mankind to that state of perfection in which Adam was at first created; and that all those laws that he has given us are agreeable to that original law, as having such a natural tendency to our own ease and quiet, that they carry their own reward, etc.’ That is, that our saviorʼs design in coming into the world was to publish such a system of laws as have a natural tendency to restore mankind to that state of perfection in which Adam was at first created, etc.”

So, our saviorʼs design in coming into the world was to publish a system of laws. In other sections, Franklin writes:

“We are now justified by a faith, the very life and soul of which consists in good works.”

“All hopes of [eternal] happiness to Christians, as such, considered separately and distinctly from the practice of the moral virtues are vain and delusory [delusional].”

“[Speaking of] our lost and undone state by nature, as it is commonly called, proceeding undoubtedly from the imputation of old Father Adamʼs first guilt. To this I answer once for all, that I look upon this opinion [of imputed or Original Sin] every whit as ridiculous as that of Imputed Righteousness… It is absurd in itself, and therefore cannot be fathered upon the Christian religion as delivered in the Gospel. Moral guilt is so personal a thing, that it cannot possibly in the nature of things be transferred from one man to myriads of others, that were no way accessary to it. And to suppose a man liable to punishment upon account of the guilt of another is unreasonable; and actually to punish him for it, is unjust and cruel.”

“What do [they] mean here, by these words, justification by his (Christʼs) righteousness, or as they elsewhere call it his imputed righteousness to justify us in the sight of God? Do they mean that the Almighty transfers the personal and perfect righteousness of Christ to men, or that he infuses it into them, and looks upon it, as the same thing with their own actual obedience to his law, and that in him they fulfill the law? Such a notion is abominably ridiculous and absurd in itself; and is so far from being a peculiar of Christianity, that the holy Scripture is absolutely a stranger to it.”

In fact, Franklin was so set on defending the teaching of morality as Jesusʼs primary role and blessing on humanity that Franklin shed his usual velvet gloved approach to religious disputes and instead “became his [Hemphillʼs] zealous partisan,” accusing the Presbyterian synod of “malice and envy,” “pious fraud… bigotry and prejudice.” Franklinʼs resentment of the entrenched, pious clerical establishment seemed to get the better of his temper. Perhaps the local heresy trial of a preacher so zealous for good works (as was Franklin himself) was too much for Franklin who was well aware of the history of Christians subjecting each other to heresy trials, and exiling or persecuting the opposition. For Franklin wrote in a London paper in 1772:

“If we look back into history for the character of the present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practiced it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Romish Church, but practiced it upon the Puritans. These found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here [Britain] and in New England.”

Even when it was discovered that Hemphill had plagiarized many of his sermons (from a heterodox or heretical preacher in England!), Franklin continued to defend Hemphill, explaining, “I rather approved his giving us good sermons composed by others, than bad ones of his own manufacture, though the latter was the practice of our common teachers.” In the end, Hemphill left town and Franklin quit the Presbyterian congregation.

Conclusion

Fortenberryʼs attempt to convince others that Franklin “converted to Christianity” hasnʼt convinced Franklin experts.

For instance, Fortenberry quotes Franklin correctly as admitting that one cannot earn the gift of eternal life and no one deserves heaven based on the good works they do on earth. Yes, Franklin said that. But note that Franklin did not say that only a belief in Jesusʼs sufferings and resurrection guaranteed eternal life. Instead, Franklin merely spoke of eternal life as a direct gift of God, admitting, in a letter in 1753, “You will see in this my notion of good works that I am far from expecting (as you suppose) that I shall merit heaven by them. By heaven we understand, a state of happiness, infinite in degree, and eternal in duration: I can do nothing to deserve such reward,” which isnʼt to say that Jesusʼs death and resurrection was what secured one heaven as Fortenberry would like Ben to have written. Instead, in the rest of the letter one can read that Franklin viewed all mankind as his “brethren,” not just “Christians,” and Franklin took pains to explain why doing good to each other was far more important than any doctrinal religious beliefs. Franklin wrote, “Mankind are all of a Family… I have received much kindness from men, to whom I shall never have any opportunity of making the least direct return. And numberless mercies from God, who is infinitely above being benefited by our services. These kindnesses from men I can therefore only return on their fellow-Men; and I can only show my gratitude for those mercies from God, by a readiness to help his other children and my brethren. For I do not think that ‘thanks, and compliments,’ thoʼ repeated weekly, can discharge our real obligations to each other, and much less those to our Creator.” Franklin continued his letter in a Gandhi-like way so as not to get into a debate over religious doctrines of salvation by adding, “The faith you mention has doubtless its use in the world; I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I endeavor to lessen it in any man. But I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen it: I mean real good works, works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not [religious] holiday-keeping, sermon-Reading or hearing, performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers, fillʼd with flatteries and compliments, despised even by wise Men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity. The Worship of God is a duty, the hearing and reading of sermons may be useful; but if men rest in hearing and praying, as too many do, it is as if a tree should value itself on being watered and putting forth Leaves, thoʼ it never produced any fruit. Your great master [Jesus] thought much less of these outward appearances and professions [of faith] than many of his modern disciples. He preferred the doers of the word to the mere hearers; the son that seemingly refused to obey his father and yet performed his commands to him that professed his readiness but neglected the works [i.e., the parable of the prodigal son]; the heretical but charitable Samaritan to the uncharitable though orthodox priest and sanctified Levite [i.e., the parable of the Good Samaritan]: and those who gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, raiment to the Naked, entertainment to the stranger, and relief to the sick, etc. though they never heard of his name, he declares shall in the last day be accepted, when those who cry ‘Lord, Lord’ who value themselves on their faith though great enough to perform miracles but have neglected good works shall be rejected. He [Jesus] professed that he came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; which implied his modest opinion that there were some in his time so good that they need not hear even him for improvement.”

As for the rest of Fortenberryʼs interpretations, I will let Franklinʼs own words and opinions as I have cited throughout this piece speak for themselves.

Lucky for Fortenberry he defines being “a Christian” as something that has nothing to do with a belief in Jesusʼs divinity, nor a belief in the Trinity, so he has opened up the door to possibly labeling Franklin a Christian even though Franklin doubted Jesusʼs divinity. But unlike Franklin, Fortenberry believes that “every word of Scripture was directly and intentionally authored by God Himself for the purpose of being included in the Bible.” And unlike Franklin, Fortenberry emphasizes the necessity of believing that Jesusʼs death and resurrection was what secured one eternal life. But as we have seen, Franklinʼs beliefs throughout his entire life emphasized that Jesusʼs greatest gift was being a moral teacher, and only used “savior” and the idea of atonement when citing and defending Hemphill against heresy accusations, and Ben always prefaced such statements as being either those of Hemphill or “doctrinal” Presbyterian views that Ben did not say were his own since he was never confirmed as a man of any sect. We also know how Ben felt about the necessity (or rather the lack of necessity) of believing in doctrines compared with the necessity of doing good, as pointed out many times in Benʼs life both before and after the year Hemphill was on ecclesiastical trial. One can only wish Fortenberry luck in propagating his idiosyncratic interpretations of Benʼs beliefs in lieu of discussions Fortenberry has already had with other experts on Franklinʼs life and religious views, like these:

From Dr. Kiddʼs piece:

Part of the problem with calling any of the Founders deists is the difficulty of defining deism. What did that term mean in the eighteenth century? Could you be a deist and somehow believe in prayer, as Franklin apparently did, at least as of the Constitutional Convention? (Franklin made a failed motion for the convention to open its sessions in prayer.) Could you be a deist and say with Jefferson, “I am a real Christian”?

Arguments about whether any or all the Founders were deists usually are hamstrung by overly precise definitions of deism. Deists believed in God as the cosmic watchmaker, critics protest, so any sign that a person believed in prayer or Providence automatically disqualifies them. But deism in eighteenth-century Europe and America could mean many different things. Its adherents could range from people who had qualms about Calvinism, to those who criticized the corruptions of the church as “priestcraft,” to more radical deists who espoused beliefs that seem close to atheism. We should also remember that “deism” and “deists” were terms probably more often used by critics against their opponents, rather than by deists themselves…

Both Franklin and Jefferson wanted to dispense with Christian dogma and recover the true faith, which was a quality of living rather than a set of arcane propositions which (as they saw it) the guardians of orthodoxy defended in order to protect their own power. This is why Franklin gave so much attention to tests of personal virtue, and experimented constantly with charitable projects. Likewise, Jefferson was almost obsessed with the person and teachings of Jesus, but believed that in his teaching and behavior Jesus served as the preeminent example of “human excellence,” and that his followers imposed claims about his divinity and resurrection after the teacherʼs death. But neither Jefferson nor Franklin imagined that we could do without this recovered rationalist Christianity—it was the best guide we had to real virtue.

The deistsʼ closest descendants today are not the “new atheists” who have stirred up so much media chatter in recent years. Their closest descendants are probably liberal mainline Christians who see Jesus as their model but who eschew (or even deny) the particular, exclusive doctrines that have been associated with Christian orthodoxy for millennia. …

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