September 1999, Vol. 4, No. 9
The monthly newsletter of the Internet Infidels
In this issue:
- What's New on the Secular Web?
- Upcoming events
- Book of the month
- Internet Infidel of the Month
- Alan Hale Leads Eclipse Expedition to Iran
- GodLovesFags.com Takes Over Fred Phelps' GodHatesFags
- Strobel Responds to Lowder on Radio Show
- National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools
- Yeah, but have you ever challenged [insert theist hero here] to a debate?
- Crop circles, religion, and intelligent design
- Feature: The Logical Problem of Evil Revisited
Eric Roode wires you into news affecting freethinkers everywhere. Get wired.
We've changed our bookstore affiliation from Amazon.com to Books.com for our U.S. readers. European readers can continue to order books through Amazon in the UK. Our decision was not prompted by the recent flap over Amazon's removal of John Atack's book A Piece of Blue Sky, however. We analyzed both vendors and for many reasons, including the online price comparison and matching service of Books.com, we felt that Books.com offers more value for both II and our readers. The change will be seamless to you.
Eric Roode has put together an excellent voter's guide for the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election. If you are a U.S. citizen, 18 years or older, then now is the time to register to vote. Register first, then check out our voter's guide.
- Conference: "Science and God", Society of Humanist Philosophers, September 25-26, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA. E-mail or call (800) 446-6198, Ext. 311. II President Jeffery Jay Lowder will participate in a debate on the last day of the conference. Board member Clark Adams and Executive Director James Still will also attend. We hope to see you there!
Introduction by Timothy J. Madigan
"It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." The forthright assertion of mathematician and educator W.K. Clifford (1845-1879) in his famous "Ethics of Belief" essay drew an immediate response from Victorian era critics who took issue with this reasoned, and brilliantly presented attack on beliefs "not founded on fair inquiry." An advocate of evolutionary theory, Clifford recognized that working hypotheses and assumptions are a necessary part of belief formation and that testing and assessing one's belief in light of new evidence strengthens those worthy of being held. "The Ethics of Belief" is presented here in complete form, along with "The Aims and Instruments of Scientific Thought," "Right and Wrong," and other essays.
Helping you to sip from the information firehose
Each month mathew dredges the bottom of the net to bring to you strange religious claims, flim-flam schemes, pop-culture memes gone awry, and the downright superstitious. Can your browser handle the upgrade to web.scan?
This month mathew considers the importance of terminology in setting the terms of debate, and take a look at the so-called "Christian Identity" movement. If you've got a strong stomach you can find out why the family that hates together stays together, learn about Jesus's Aryan heritage, and find out what atheism, junk bonds and the Illuminati have in common.
Each month we recognize an "Internet Infidel of the Month", an outstanding person whose contributions have had an enormous impact on the Secular Web as well as the freethought, atheist, agnostic, and humanist community at large. We encourage you, our readers, to submit nominees to us as Contact. Each month, we will pick one outstanding person who has helped to educate others about secularism on the web. This month our pick is Brett Lemoine who has contributed significantly to atheism and to the Secular Web. Brett was the founder of the atheist and agnostic student group at Texas A&M in 1992, where he also graduated with a Bachelor of Science in computer science. In 1994, while still an undergraduate, Brett started and maintained the Freethought Web on his privately-owned machine connected to the university's network from his dorm room. Out of those humble beginnings emerged the Secular Web when Brett teamed up with Jeffery Jay Lowder in 1995.
We're pleased to choose Brett Lemoine as this month's Internet Infidel of the Month!
Dr. Alan Hale, Internet Infidel supporter and Director of the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and known for his discovery of Comet Hale-Bopp which shone in the nighttime skies two years ago, led a small delegation of fellow scientists, students, and educators on an expedition to Iran to view the forthcoming total solar eclipse on August 11. The expedition left the U.S. on August 1 and spent two weeks traveling to various cities around Iran giving presentations and demonstrations on astronomy and space to a wide variety of audiences. The expedition viewed the eclipse from the city of Esfahan, which has a clear-sky probability of 96%, the best weather prospects of any location along the eclipse path.
The delegation included a diverse group of participants. Among them was Apollo 9 lunar module pilot Russell "Rusty" Schweickart. "This will be the fifth total total eclipse I've seen, and they are always exciting and unique," said Schweickart. "I've done scientific observations during eclipses, but a major part of the experience is getting to a great viewing location and meeting wonderful new people. No place could be better than Iran to meet these criteria!" Another participant was Stephanie Lester, a 16-year-old student and aspiring astronomer from Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, who began corresponding with Hale two years ago. "This is not only a wonderful opportunity to view the eclipse," notes Ms. Lester, "but a chance to experience a culture that is so different from our own."
Total solar eclipses, such as the one on August 11, provide rare and unique opportunities for obtaining astronomical observations that are not otherwise possible. Among the participants in the delegation were scientists working with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) project, a joint NASA/ESA sun-studying spacecraft launched in late 1995, whose members hope to coordinate observations obtained by SOHO at the time of the eclipse with those they obtained from Iran.
Dr. Hale planned to observe small comets that might be near the sun, which recent SOHO data indicates appear at the approximate rate of one every one to two weeks. "The phenomenal rate at which we are discovering sungrazing comets came as a great surprise," notes delegation participant Douglas Biesecker of SM&A Corporation and NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Observing one of these comets from the ground at the same time as observing it with SOHO will enhance our SOHO observations and improve our study of the comets." In addition to collaborating with Hale in observing any comets Biesecker also studied the structure and density of the solar corona -- the sun's hot, thin outer atmosphere -- during the eclipse.
Hale's group has been working with the Zirakzadeh Science Foundation in Tehran, a non-governmental, nonprofit organization committed to building science museums to help in improving science literacy throughout Iran. "Since I've been committed to improving science literacy here in the United States, it seemed a natural partnership to work with my counterparts who are engaged in the same activities in Iran," notes Hale. "Here at the Zirakzadeh Foundation we strive to get as many people as possible interested in science and technology. The occurrence of a total solar eclipse is an excellent opportunity for them to enjoy a beautiful natural phenomenon as well as think about all the science and math they have studied in school," remarks Mostafa Torabizadeh, Director of the Foundation, who adds "I think people's curiosity to see some scientists from America is no less than their interest in seeing the eclipse. We look forward to these wonderful events, both in the sky and on the ground." Torabizadeh has been responsible for arranging the venues for presentations by the delegation.
Contacts between Hale's group and the Zirakzadeh Foundation were facilitated by Search for Common Ground, a Washington D.C. based nonprofit organization dedicated to conflict resolution. For over a year, Search for Common Ground has facilitated people-to-people exchanges between Iranians and Americans in such areas as wrestling, film, and philosophy, to create mutual good will and understanding between the peoples. "This eclipse provides a good opportunity to build bridges between Iranian and American scientists," comments John Marks, President of Search for Common Ground. "Not only will the scientific observations made during the eclipse add to the field of astronomy, but the scientists will have an opportunity to meet their counterparts and establish relationships that we expect will continue well beyond August 11."
The expedition plans to submit regular updates and images from their activities in Iran on a special eclipse page on the Southwest Institute's web site, which can be accessed at http://www.swisr.org/iraneclipse.html. Furthermore, America On Line hosted live chats and Q&A sessions with delegation members on the day of the eclipse and provided full coverage during the days leading up to the event. The sessions included Hale, Schweickart, Lester, and some of the SOHO scientists.
The Southwest Institute for Space Research is an incorporated 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to space research and astronomical and science education for all people. Those who wish to learn more about the activities of the Institute and become a partner with it in future science educational activities should contact Buddy Chambless, the Institute's financial development associate, at wchambless or by telephone at +1 (505) 687-2075.
Sometimes the radical religious right gets its long-deserved comeuppance. Fred Phelps, the outspoken and homophobic evangelical minister of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, was bested by an anonymous net denizen recently when his expired domain name was transferred without his knowledge to the owner of his rival at GodLovesFags.com.
On August 18, 1999 at about 4:00 p.m. Eastern time, ownership of the domain name www.godhatesfags.com was transferred through Internic to the owner of GodLovesFags.com. While the the webmasters at GodLovesFags is not aware of exactly how the domain was transferred, they insist that it was due to the efforts of an anonymous supporter and by no action of their own.
The DNS entry, that formerly pointed to www.godhatesfags.com, is now set up to point to www.godlovesfags.com. Phelps and his supporters, bewildered by the maneuver, accused "faggots" of hacking into his computer in order to sabotage his web site. "We did not hack any servers or web sites," said the new owners, "We merely rerouted a domain name that had been transferred to our ownership."
On August 20, due to pressure from their uplink, the owners of GodLovesFags.com decided to give the domain name back to Phelps. "As much as we dislike Mr. Phelps and his preachings, we realize if we took away his main website, our site's purpose would be diluted," they said.
When GodLovesFags.com went online in March 1999 it was the intent of its maintainers to put up a positive, affirming site that could serve as a resource to gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual and transgendered persons of faith. GodLovesFags.com is a non-denominational, non-discriminatory web site for the purpose of sharing a message of God's love with people who have traditionally been inundated with a message of hate as well as to monitor the actions of those like Phelps who spew hate in the name of God. The site links to information of other faiths and even to opposing viewpoints.
[Thanks to Phil Wilk (email address removed)for alerting us to this story.]
The Internet Infidels have received a report that Lee Strobel has partially responded to Internet Infidels President Jeffery Jay Lowder during a radio interview on Hank Hanegraaff's "Bible Answer Man" radio program. Lee Strobel is the author of the Christian apologetics book, The Case for Christ. Strobel attempts to bolster the credibility of his book by promoting it as the work of a sober journalistic investigation by a former atheist turned Christian pastor.
Lowder, however, wrote a critical review of Strobel's book in a recent issue of Philo, the Journal of the Society of Humanist Philosophers. Lowder argues that Strobel's "journalistic unvestigation" was completely one-sided since Strobel did not interview any of the leading critics of evangelical Christianity. Lowder also pointed out that Strobel quoted a paper by Lowder on the Resurrection but failed to give the source of that paper in his book or even to mention Lowder's name.
According to James F. Luther, a Secular Web reader from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Strobel recently responded to Lowder's plagiarism charge on a Christian radio program. According to Luther, a caller to Hanegraaff's "Bible Answer Man" radio show mentioned Lowder's review of Strobel's book. The caller stated that Lowder had claimed Strobel "lifted" some of Lowder's work from the Internet without proper citation. Strobel responded by saying that he thought that the argument was made by so many others that it didn't need to be cited. Moreover, Strobel said that he didn't want to give the Secular Web "free publicity". Hanegraaff cut off the caller before any debate could ensue.
Editor's note: After this article was published we learned that Lowder did not accuse Strobel of plagiarism but instead was making the point that in his book Strobel sometimes quoted unnamed skeptics rather than citing them by name. We deeply regret the error and apologize to Mr. Strobel for the mistake.
[Lowder's review, "The Rest of the Story," was originally published in Philo, Vol. 2, (1999), pp. 89-102.]
"We're just trying to expose the kids to the biblical Christian worldview."-- NCBCPS director Elizabeth Ridenour, Sept. 14, 1995 radio program "Truths That Transform"
The self-named National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools may say it wants to introduce Bible classes in public schools to improve students' understanding of literature and history, but the real intent of the organization is to promote a religious, primarily Christian doctrine.
In addition, its manual refers to the separation of church and state as a "myth."
NCBCPS has boasted that anywhere from 45 to 300 school districts have adopted its curriculum, but no one really knows, and NCBCPS won't tell the public. NCBCPS has generally refused to make its curriculum available for evaluation by scholars and the media, selectively disclosing it only to friendly school board members and parents.
In 1998, after a federal court in Florida prohibited the Lee County public school district, on constitutional grounds, from teaching the NCBCPS "New Testament" curriculum, NCBCPS denied that it was their curriculum at all.
NCBCPS often says its curriculum is not controversial and that nearly every approached school board has adopted it. In fact, these school boards recently rejected NCBCPS's curriculum: North Kansas City, Missouri; Midland, Texas; and Peoria, Illinois.
Who is behind the NCBCPS? NCBCPS board of directors and advisory board have included Religious Right leaders like televangelist D. James Kennedy, President of Coral Ridge Ministries, who has called public schools "Godless" and actively campaigned for the impeachment of a federal judge who ordered a proselytizing state judge in Alabama to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom. Kennedy also has a well-documented history of raising money by promoting the false and inflammatory stereotype that gays and lesbians are child molesters.
Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus and Rus Walton of the Plymouth Rock Foundation have also served on NCBCPS boards. Both Phillips and Walton are considered Christian Reconstructionists advocates of theocracy with a government based on a literal reading of the Bible, including the harsh legal code of the "Old Testament." Under this model, as many as 18 "offenses," including blasphemy, adulterery and persistent juvenile delinquency would merit the death penalty.
NCBCPS circulates material by David Barton, who produces historically inaccurate videotapes and books asserting that the constitutionally-required separation of church and state was invented by the Supreme Court. NCBCPS often cites materials from the American Center For Law and Justice (ACLJ) to defend the constitutionality of its curriculum. ACLJ was founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.
Since the Secular Web was first created in 1995, we've hosted or sponsored a number of debates between believers and unbelievers. Some of these took place over the Internet while others took place before a live audience. In each instance, we always seem to receive the following response: "Yes, I saw your debate with theist X, but what about theist Y? I dare you to challenge theist Y to a debate." The implication, of course, is that theist X was not as qualified as theist Y and therefore a better debater could have defeated the nontheist in the debate.
For the record, neither I nor any other Internet Infidel shares that sentiment. In other words, we believe that the theists who defended theism (or Christianity or whatever) in a debate sponsored by Internet Infidels were qualified--indeed, well-qualified--to do so. But since we receive complaints about our choice of theistic debaters, I thought it would be worthwhile to briefly mention other theists with whom we have tried to arrange a debate:
- Francis A. Beckwith
- Gregory A. Boyd
- Paul Clayton
- Paul Copan
- William Lane Craig
- Norman Geisler
- Douglas Groothius
- Gary Habermas
- Michael Horner
- Daniel Howard-Snyder
- Robert Koons
- Gregory Koukl
- J.P. Moreland
- David A. Noebel
- Hugh Ross
- R.C. Sproul
- Richard Swinburne
- Ravi Zacharias
For one reason or another, we have (so far) been unable to arrange a debate with the above list of theists.
Let me make it very clear that I am not attempting to criticize in any way these theists for declining our invitation. Indeed, many of them were extremely cordial and prompt in their replies; moreover, many of them indicated that they would be interested in participating in a debate at a future time. I simply wanted to set the record straight about who we have in fact challenged to debate. I hope the above list will be more than sufficient to convince theists that we are always trying to engage well-qualified philosophers and apologists in a debate.
At first glance the words in above title would seem to have very little in common with each other especially crop circles and religion or crop circles and intelligent design arguments. Even the relationship between religion and design is a stretch. However, there is an common almost sympathetic relationship between the three that can explain, in a capsulated form some of the peculiarities of human nature and how we perceive the nature of things.
Crop circles, more popularly called the crop circle 'phenomena' is still a bona fide dish on the menu of most purveyors of the quasi-pseudoscience-spiritual-religious realm. These 'mysterious' circles first appeared in 1968 (but never before) and everything including the kitchen sink has been attributed to their miraculous and sudden existence. Strange space vortexes, UFO's, divine power, spiritual intercession, arcane messaging, psychic power, you name it, and it has been tossed around as a plausible explanation for the phenomena. Everything that is except the very great and distinct possibility that man could have conceived, designed and created the circles.
Crop circles seemingly appear overnight in intricate patterns in a stunning and inexplicable manner in the wheat and rapeseed fields of England and Scotland. Some have appeared in the United States and other places. Over the years the once basic circular pattern has evolved, for lack of a better word, to shapes and designs, some not unlike the ancient Incan symbols found on the plain of Nazca in Peru. These patterns, described in Von Daniken's 'Chariots of the Gods' are couched with the extraterrestrial option of, "could this be an (alien) aerial direction indicator rather than a (man made) symbol of religion?" It is clear Von Daniken is promoting the former and completely ignoring overwhelming evidence of human origin and creation of the latter for human purposes.
So it is with the crop circles. All naturalistic explanations were ridiculed and deemed too far fetched of an idea that humans could be involved. No humans could have possibly made the shapes. Self-styled crop 'experts' claimed the circles were too perfect, too amazing, too 'unearthly' to be of human origin. It was inconceivable that lowly man could be responsible. The circles could not be a hoax because, well, just because a hoax would not fit into the circle paradigm the so-called experts created. A fine example of circular reasoning!
So what does all this have to do with religion? The circles were a hoax. The circles were thought up and created by some clever humans. The circles are man made. Not only that, the circles were made by man with the simplest of tools: a flat board, a piece of rope and a very good imagination. Yet even after all the supernatural explanations were exposed as false and the proponents of the supernatural theories were shown how the circles were made, they refuse to believe it.
Incredibly, after these people were all but given lessons in circle making, they remained, dare we say, 'skeptical' of what their own senses were telling them was the truth. Just as people of religion remain skeptical of the conclusive evidence against religious claims of miracles, divine intervention, or intercessory prayer so does the 'literalist' crop theorist. Clearly, if the human mind is capable of creating crop circles the human mind is capable of creating a god that can make crop circles.
The originators/creators of the circles detailed how, when, where, and why they created the circles and how they became more sophisticated as the years went on. They explained how they accurately made straight lines in the middle of the night. They explained how they got into and out of the fields undetected, which, in turn explained how, due to farming practices and machinery, most of the circles appeared in England (I believe the farming practice is called 'wind rowing'. This is when the machinery leaves an 'aisle' in between the crop seedings. Even when the circle makers went directly through the planted fields, there was virtually no evidence of intrusion.) They explained how much time was involved. They explained everything down the smallest detail only to be told by the new skeptics that they were wrong. Sound familiar?
After being shown overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are still people whom believe the circles are of supernatural or unearthly origin. If it can happen with something as simple as the crop circle hoax, just imagine the mind set of the religious types whom continue to believe the simple and contrived stories contained in their religious books written in a time of superstition and ignorance and reinforced through the ages with threats of impending doom, misery, coercion, and oppression. The gullible leading the naive.
Interestingly enough, the skeptics of the naturalist explanation point to a familiar 'cause' as why they are convinced the circles are of supernatural origin: Design. They see a non-human intelligent designer or cause in the way the circles, lines, and geometric patterns are perfectly formed or the way the wheat lays and appears to be intertwined once it has been affected by the circle making forces. There can be no other explanation for these literalist. Yet the circles are not perfect circles; the straight lines are not perfectly straight; the geometric figures are not perfect figures. And, as a natural by-product, if you will, of the circle making process, the staff of wheat does appear to take on a weaved pattern as different layers are pushed down atop each other. In other places it is distributed far more randomly. They just appear to be perfect to the observer looking for design and certainly from afar they look perfectly designed also. Like the intelligent design proponents of theology, they cannot seem to grasp the concept that there is more than just the means and extremes of nature. Like their crop circle counterparts, intelligent design proponents reside at the very extremes of micro-biotic evolution and macro-astro evolution. They just conveniently ignore everything else that occurs in between.
Crop circles, religion, and intelligent design have more in common than most people think. In a microcosm the relationship is only too clear. Intelligent people can be fooled, deceived, subject to subliminal suggestion, misdirection, and faulty thinking. Many times our own pride and vanity gets in the way of looking objectively at the evidence and making rational decisions based on the best evidence and problem solving techniques. We, as humans tend to get stuck in the rut of irrationality and nonsensical thinking because we tend to look to other explanations rather than the more natural based conclusions. We tend to believe things because others tell us what is true and what ought to be believed. Its just human nature to seek other explanations, but as crop circles, religion and intelligent design is concerned sometimes eating a little crow is worth the price of dessert.
"The first divine was the first rogue who met the first fool" -Voltaire
[J. E. Hill is a member of the Inland Northwest Freethought Society, and editor of the Mountain Top Skeptic newsletter. He resides in Kettle Falls, WA.]
The Logical Problem of Evil Revisited
Before you can go about disproving the existence of a hypothetical being such as God (and for purposes of philosophical dialogue, God is still hypothetical), you must first define what you mean by the word "God." A Christian definition is that God is a personal being, possessing intellect and the capacity for emotion. God is all-powerful. That is, he has the ability to do anything that is logically possible. God knows everything that it is logically possible to know. God is perfectly good and just. God created us and our universe. God is the being who has communicated his will through the Christian Bible, which he authored. All biblical doctrines are therefore irrevocably linked to a Christian definition of God.
According to the Bible, all who do not acknowledge and accept Christ as their savior will go to hell. Hell is a terrible place where there is "wailing and gnashing of teeth" etc. Some imagery portrays hell as a place of eternal burning. Whether it's really like that doesn't matter--what we do read in the Bible indicates that hell is a place of intense suffering, be it physical or emotional. Hell does not end. According to the Bible, the damned deserve to go to hell because they are sinners. Hell is a punishment administered by God for sins or crimes that humans commit during their mortal lifetimes.
This is what God is and what he does, according to a Christian definition. But this definition contains a self-contradiction, making it impossible for God--so defined--to exist. God is supposed to be just, yet he administers unjust punishments.
Yes, that's right--according to a Christian definition, God must administer unjust punishments, since he condemns sinners to an eternity in hell. Any punishment that exceeds the severity of the sin is unjust. You don't cut a kid's hand off for stealing a dollar bill, since that would be an unjust punishment. You don't pull out someone's tongue for committing perjury, or sentence someone to life in prison for giving someone else a black eye. These are all punishments that grossly exceed the severity of the crimes for which they are administered. They lack all sense of proportionality. They are unjust.
If all of these punishments are unjust, think how much more unjust is the punishment God gives sinners. The agony of hell is much more intense than anything experienced on earth. It also never ends, which means that the total severity of the punishment will approach infinity. It will inevitably exceed the severity of the limited sins committed during a limited lifetime. It doesn't matter how many terrible things you do during your life--the severity of those sins will never equal infinity. We are, after all, only finite beings. But in hell, the severity of someone's punishment will eventually equal the severity of the sins she has committed. But after that happens, the punishment doesn't end. It just keeps going and going, one miserable, terrible, agonizing moment following the next. God inflicts this gratuitous punishment on the sinner. Perhaps the sinner is responsible for all the suffering she endures prior to this moment when the severity of the sin and the punishment reach proportionality. But God is responsible for the excess that occurs thereafter, and therefore God commits an injustice. So, according to the Christian definition, God is both just and unjust. But it is impossible for a real being to simultaneously possess both these qualities. This means that God can't exist. The Christian God is disproven.
There are some responses to this argument. One of the most common is that, since the sinners choose to reject the forgiveness that God offers, they are responsible for what happens to them, not God. If their punishment matched the severity of their sins, this would be true. But this is not the case, since the punishment lasts forever. By rejecting God's offer of absolution, the sinners accept on themselves only the limited punishment they deserve for their limited sins.
Consider this parable: A man named Paul owes a guy named Josh $100. Josh offers to forgive Paul's debt. In other words, Paul doesn't need to pay Josh back if he agrees to this offer. But Paul ignorantly or foolishly rejects Josh's offer. Josh then replies "Ok, you made your bed, now you're going to have to sleep in it. Since you chose to reject my offer, you must now pay me $1,000,000."
Does this make sense? Of course not. Paul's rejection of Josh's offer doesn't mean that Paul owes Josh any more than the original $100 he borrowed. Similarly, the sinner's rejection of God's forgiveness does not mean that the sinner deserves any more punishment than is deserved given the severity of his sin. Inflicting eternal punishment isn't simply unjust--it's absurd.
A related objection to my argument is that hell isn't really a place God creates to punish the sinner, but a state of misery that the sinner creates for herself by choosing sin. According to this view, God doesn't punish us--we punish ourselves. So God isn't responsible for sinners suffering forever in hell. The problem with this is that it is unbiblical. There is no verse that indicates that hell is just a self-created misery. According to the Bible, hell is an actual place of punishment created by God. Luke 12:5 says that we should "fear him [God] who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell." The Bible describes hell as a kind of prison God has made for sinners, not just some self-inflicted state of suffering. As the punisher, therefore, God has a responsibility to see that the punished receive only the level of punishment they deserve--no more and no less.
Another response to the argument is that sin is an infinite crime, so infinite punishment is deserved. I have already addressed this objection by pointing out that finite beings cannot commit sins of infinite severity. Consider this: There are different degrees of wrongdoing. Murdering someone is much worse than kicking someone in the shin. In our earthly systems of justice, we recognize these different degrees of wrongdoing by administering different degrees of punishment. For mild offenses, we might require someone to pay a fine, or do community service. For more severe offenses, we might sentence someone to long periods in prison, sometimes even life in prison, or even the death penalty. We give people these different sentences because they commit different crimes. How do we measure how severe a crime is? Basically, we measure the severity of a crime by estimating the relative amount of needless suffering that such a crime tends to cause. Pilfering a Tootsie Roll tends to cause relatively little suffering to others. Torturing and slaughtering millions of people, however, tends to cause a relatively massive amount of suffering to others. Given these relative amounts of suffering, we assign degrees of severity to crimes, and assign parallel degrees of severity in the punishments we mete out for specific crimes.
Given this standard of determining what punishments are appropriate, an infinite punishment is only called for when a crime tends to cause infinite suffering in others. But the suffering that people experience as a result of one person's wrongdoing--even if it is unbearably severe--is still limited. Holocaust survivors endured unimaginable horrors at the hands of Nazi criminals. Still, their physical suffering ended. Their emotional suffering continues for many years afterward, but still fades with time. When they die, the remaining emotional suffering will be entirely erased. Thus, the suffering caused by the sins of even such tremendous violators as the Nazis is limited. The punishment must therefore be limited.
We have seen how human suffering as a consequence of sin is limited. Is it possible that God himself endures infinite suffering because of sin? Of course not. If God experienced unlimited suffering, we could hardly call him perfect. After all, his existence would be no better than those whom he condemns to hell. The suffering caused by sin is limited, so the punishment administered for it should also be limited.
The final objection I will address is the one that insists that God is the one who creates justice, so we mere humans have no basis for judging his punishments to be unjust. If God wants to punish limited sinners eternally, then that's just, because whatever God does is just. By this view, justice is what God says it is. So if God spontaneously decided to go against his promises and punish Christians while rewarding sinners, would this be just? According to this view, it would be, since God is the person who decides what is just. Can you imagine a world where hurting people is considered good, while kindness is bad and is punished? By defining justice as whatever God arbitrarily decides is justice, we commit ourselves to the view that such hypothetical worlds would be just, even though it goes against every intuition we have about what is good or bad.
But a just God would not arbitrarily set such standards. Murder is unjust because of the gratuitous suffering it causes, not because God says it is. If there is a God, he knows that there is an irrevocable bond between needless suffering and our definitions of justice and injustice.
To demonstrate this bond, consider the following hypothetical worlds. Imagine a universe where nothing but rocks existed. The rocks do not think or feel, but just float around and occasionally crash into one another. Could anything approaching a concept of "justice" exist in such a universe? No, since there can be no personal consequences in this universe. Because rocks do not think or feel, there is no such thing as "good" or "bad" in the relations between these rocks. Now imagine a universe full of free beings who think, but do not feel physical or emotional pain. Some give objects to others. Others take objects away, even if they don't own them. They give birth and they kill. But they do not feel. They do not experience happiness or desire or pain. In such a universe, can there be a meaningful concept of justice? No, since there are no significant personal consequences in this universe. Sure, the beings choose to act in certain ways, and these actions have physical consequences on others. But these acts do not have emotional consequences, and they can never cause physical pain. Emotionally speaking, killing someone is just the same as giving them a gift. Restraining them is just the same as letting them walk free. Without emotion or pain, there can be no notion of justice. Justice is an empty concept unless it relates actions to emotional consequences, pain, pleasure, happiness, and misery. There is no such thing as justice that is "arbitrarily" chosen. Feeling must be taken into account.
If there is a just God, he would not make arbitrary rules, but would set standards that acknowledge this unbreakable bond between justice and feeling. These standards would necessarily include the principle that just punishment is proportional to the suffering that sin tends to cause.
So a just God who sends people to hell does not exist. Maybe there is a god who is just. Or maybe there is a god who sends people to hell. But there cannot be a God who is and does both. Such a God is impossible.
This is one reason why I don't believe in a Christian God.
[Chad Docterman, a contributing writer to the Secular Web, also maintains The Humanist Soapbox.]
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