Category Archives: Faith

Are There Any Genuine Christians: An Argument Ad Masturbatum

In my previous article I considered a very widespread belief amongst Christians that there is no such thing as an honest atheist – that all atheists deep down know there is a God and knowingly reject their creator because they desire a life of sin. In this article I want to examine the flip-side charge from some atheists: that there are no genuine Christians. Sometimes this takes the form of an exclamation: “surely you can’t believe that a dead guy rose again from the dead!” On other occasions it’s the old psychological claim that Christians are simply engaged in wishful thinking rather than genuine belief. But here I want to consider an actual argument, which I’ve chosen to call the “argument ad masturbatum,” the reason for which will become obvious.

Take some ordinary Christian – we’ll call him Bob. Bob is a single man in his 20s, active in church, evangelises his friends, and has just signed up for an apologetics course. However, Bob has a little secret that he hopes is never found out. He engages in regular masturbation. Obviously he doesn’t do this in the back pew on a Sunday morning or while he’s waiting for his groceries to be bagged. Nor would he do it in the presence of his mother or an officer of the law. It’s in the dark of night, when no-one is around, that he finds himself overrun by sexual images in his imagination and engages in masturbation.

What has this to do with God? Well, Bob wouldn’t engage in masturbation in the presence of other people. He’d die of embarrassment if his mother walked into his room and saw him. However, Bob professes to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, and personal God. So, if he wouldn’t masturbate in the presence of his mother, why does he do it in the presence of God, who he claims disapproves of his actions? Is it not the case that whilst he claims to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, personal being, he actually holds no such belief? If Bob really believed what he claims to believe, then he wouldn’t even masturbate in private; since, obviously, if such a being exists there isn’t a private place at all.

Despite the rather juvenile nature of this argument, it does make a more general point. There are many cases when Christians engage in behaviour that they surely wouldn’t engage in if they really believed God was present and fully cognizant of what they do. So, would we so easily lose our temper with the seemingly incompetent shop assistant if Jesus was right there physically beside us? Would we engage in harmful gossip if God’s presence was manifest suddenly in our midst? And yet, don’t Christians claim to believe God is indeed present all the time? Don’t our actions in hundreds of situations betray our actual unbelief despite what we claim?

It’s a neat little argument. A little too neat, I think. The argument ignores some crucial features of how humans hold knowledge and beliefs, in particular the relative strength of the belief in question and the fact that many of our beliefs rarely enter our conscious awareness. Our minds are complex things, caverns holding a depository of fact, memories, beliefs and values. Millions of pieces of information are crammed between our ears in complex arrangements. However, the vast majority of it simply sits in there without ever flitting into our conscious awareness. Take my belief that “Paris is the capital city of France.” Until 10 seconds ago that belief wasn’t in my sphere of conscious awareness. It was somewhere within my cavernous brain, hidden away until I recalled it for the purposes of making an illustration in this article. However, it’s true to say that “Paris is the capital city of France” is a belief I hold even when I’m not consciously aware of it (which is most of my waking life). We find the same thing when we sit to watch a quiz show. We hear a question, and if the answer is hidden away in our mind somewhere it will hopefully spring back into our sphere of conscious awareness so we can answer. Sometimes we can’t get the answer but we know it’s in there somewhere. When we then hear the answer we might claim in frustration, “I knew that!” Again, I might be asked to make an exhaustive list of all the insects I know of. When I submit my list it might well be the case that an entomologist can name a few species I didn’t include in my “exhaustive” list but which I did in fact know about (eg, pond-skaters). These examples illustrate that our minds can contain lots of beliefs and pieces of knowledge that don’t constantly sit in our sphere of conscious awareness. They flit in and out, and sometimes we struggle to recall them at all.

It is this feature of our minds that helps to explain the seeming disconnect between Bob’s proclaimed beliefs and his actions. So, in the dark of night, Bob isn’t thinking about God. This belief – like his belief that Paris is the capital of France – is sitting somewhere else in his mind, dormant and forgotten. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it. He does. When asked for his thoughts about God, his belief will come whizzing back into his consciousness as he confirms his acceptance of it as true. Moreover, look also at the nature of God compared to the nature of Bob’s mother. Bob’s mother is a physical being and should she enter the room her presence forces itself upon Bob’s conscious awareness. However, God is incorporeal and invisible. His presence is not manifest to Bob’s consciousness a lot of the time. So, the belief that God is present is not as obvious to Bob as the belief that his mother is present.

This failure to live in the conscious awareness of God’s presence is perhaps what ultimately lies at the root of what Christians call sin. The process of sanctification is thus a process by which we live more and more in the conscious awareness of God’s presence (and hence sin less). Bob, like most Christians, has only made very limited progress in that direction. He often forgets God in his day to day living, in the same way that all of us “forget” most of the things we know or believe as we go about our day to day routines. Moreover, Bob’s belief in God isn’t certain. Like all of us we believe the things we do to a greater or lesser degree, and most of the things we believe are held to some degree of probability rather than certainty. Where our belief is stronger, we are perhaps more aware of God throughout our lives.

It seems to me, therefore, that Bob’s actions do not at all negate his confessed beliefs. Instead they testify to the level of his conscious awareness of God and the degree of his belief.

And so I end this article the way I ended the companion article about honest atheists: with an appeal to the principle of charity. In any discussion we should always do our interlocutor the courtesy such that when they tell us they believe this or that we simply believe them and proceed on the basis that what they tell us is indeed an honest account of their epistemic situation. Only by doing so can we hope to have a productive discussion about the relative merits or demerits of the belief in question. Failing to embrace this principle will leave us toying with unhelpful psychoanalysis which is patronising, self-righteous, and waste of time.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Belief, Faith, Theism

Our Lady of the Illogical Leaps

Sometimes it’s hard to be a theist. You work hard to show the intellectual credentials of theism and then this happens:

In Holy Mary Parish Church in Rathkeale, County Limerick, Ireland 2000 people have signed a petition to prevent the removal of a tree stump from the grounds of the church. Are they diehard environmentalists? Nope. Eccentric tree-huggers? Nope. Hippies with a respect for every square inch of Mother Earth? Alas, no. They reason they’ve signed a petition – and set-up a makeshift shrine – and held prayer vigils complete with Rosary beads and candles – is because the tree stump bears the image of the Blessed Virgin herself. Allegedly.

Of course it’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Several years ago the Mother of God appeared to mark the passing of Pope John Paul II. Did she appear in a blinding light before the masses gathered in St. Peters square? Apparently not. Did she descend over Poland with a heavenly choir singing a thousand hallelujahs? Not quite. Instead the blessed virgin chose a more humble – albeit rather obscure – means of giving the divine thumbs-up to the deceased pontiff.

Mary appeared on a concrete wall of a grimy Chicago underpass. The human-sized yellow and white image seemed to have formed from road salt and rainwater that over time had spilt from the Kennedy Expressway overhead. Nonetheless, believers insisted that the stain was miraculous. To my eyes the stain looked fairly unremarkable; not so to the eyes of many faithful Catholics. To them it was most certainly a picture of Mary with her hands clasped in prayerful thanks and adoration. I tried as hard as I could – even with the help of an artists impression – I still couldn’t see how this water stain resembled what it was supposed to resemble. The best I could do was to see a man with a long beard and rather sinister eyes (much more Bin Laden than Blessed Virgin), and then only by holding the picture diagonally and squinting a bit.

Anyhow, 1000’s of people had eyes – and imagination – to see, and flocked en masse to the subway to pay tribute. The underpass was transformed into a shrine, complete with flowers and candles, and the faithful were found kneeling before the wall, praying and clutching rosary beads. Moreover, in an age in which traditional religious adherence is plummeting in western countries, church leaders on this occasion were more than happy to sit back and allow the hysterical idiocy to continue unchallenged and unquestioned. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago even contended that the apparition reaffirms people’s faith, whether it is real or not. “These things don’t happen every day,” Jim Dwyer, a spokesman, added. Indeed they don’t, but they could if people wanted them to. Just look at the clouds, close one eye, and before long you could see a white fluffy image resembling God himself on his throne (perhaps with Elvis sitting on his right hand side).

Such things may indeed encourage people’s faith, but they do little for the credibility of religious believers. Moreover, many religious folks are shown to display a rather cavalier approach to truth: in effect they’re implying that they don’t give a toss if something is true or not, just whether or not it builds the faith of the brethren. But, shouldn’t truth be much more important than that?

Such phenomena are merely the latest in a long line of supposed theophanies. In years gone by we have had the name of Allah make an appearance inside a tomato, a hindu cow-god statue drinking milk (gotta love that porous rock, eh?), the face of the devil coming from the wreckage of the World Trade Centre buildings in the billowing smoke and fire, and, my personal favourite: the image of Mary gazing lovingly out at the faithful from a partly eaten ten year old cheese toastie, that was subsequently auctioned on Ebay, bought for $28,000 by an internet casino company, wrapped in plastic, and sent on a nationwide celebrity tour of the USA. The virgin Mary obviously likes her food as she has also been found lurking in a knob of popcorn and on a bacon flavoured potato crisp.

The truth is that people will see what they want to see, and we learn this fairly early on in life. Most of us as children have been out one day with a parent who decides to play the age-old “cloud game” – to see what shapes you can find up in the sky. We can find all sorts of things, but as any sane and rational person knows full well the things we see are not real. There isn’t really a giant mile-wide seagull in the sky. Just a big fluffy white cloud. Human beings, due to some weird quirk of psychology, are particularly adept at seeing faces in things. There’s a wonderful Twitter account called “faces in things” which testifies to some wonderful examples of this – many much clearer than divine tree stumps and cheese toasties.

It’s certainly not unusual to have a fascination for the mysterious. I can’t remember a time in my life when religious matters didn’t fascinate me. But I’d like to think that my approach was and is rational: investigating religious claims, studying religious practices, and reflecting on the phenomena of religious experience. Unfortunately a rational approach is of little interest to vast numbers of people who can’t be bothered putting the time and effort in. Instead they want a quick fix, an easy answer, an instant miracle to be a part of; and they want it so desperately that they’ll dive at any report – however wacky – so they can feel like they’re part of a generation that witnessed the miraculous. They care not for the leaps of logic required to reach their conclusions. Such types are highly frustrating, as reason simply will not penetrate the dark caverns of their credulous minds.

To be fair, in the case of the tree stump the church in question is officially taking a stance of scepticism. The parish priest has warned against worship of the tree, saying: “There’s nothing there . . . it’s just a tree. You can’t worship a tree.” Indeed, but other locals are more than willing to brush that off. One parishioner offered: “It’s doing no harm and it’s bringing people together, from young and old to black and white, Protestant and Catholic, to say a few prayers so what’s wrong with that?” And there we have that same old cavalier attitude to truth raise its ugly head again.

Noel White, chairman of Rathkeale Community Council’s graveyard committee has since given assurances that the stump will not be removed – despite only being a stump, right? Well, he adds: “Nature has a funny way of showing things up and let it be a freak of nature or something else but whatever it is, surely it is a wonderful thing to see so many people coming out to pray, especially young people who have been saying the Rosary in the church for the past few nights.” And thus I suspect the local church authorities are perhaps quite happy with the superstition. It’s swelling the ranks of the faithful, and probably bringing a significant cash benefit in its wake too.

“Maybe this is Our Lady’s way of getting people back to the church.”

Maybe that’s your way of not speaking the truth because the superstitious nonsense is bringing you congregants and cash?

It strikes me a really rather silly. Surely even just a smidge of rudimentary thinking can dispel the illusion. To those who think they see Mary: I’d really love to know how you have any idea what she looks like. Did I miss that part of the Bible that provides her vital statistics? Or did Saint Luke release an illustrated version of his Gospel? We are told that she was a young Jewish woman, but that hardly narrows it down. Presumably some young Jewish women were fat, some thin, some tall, some small, some hideously ugly, others stunningly attractive. For all you know you could actually be bowing before a Hindu goddess of destruction. Lets face it, this apparition is only Mary because a Catholic saw it first and said it was.

And just how well does this kind of thing build your faith? Do you believe in God even more now that you have looked at a tree stump and have seen an obscure image that you dubiously assume to be Mary? The next time a sceptic asks you to defend your grounds for believing in God, or challenges your faith in some way, it probably isn’t wise to open your defence with, “ah, well I saw this tree stump once that looked like the Virgin Mary.”

The reaction to this fluke of nature illustrates perfectly what so many people find distasteful about religion. Rather than engage in rational discourse too many religious people are happy to resort to illogical mental gymnastics. In this instance there’s a dodgy starting premise – that this stump is, objectively speaking, the image of a woman. From this highly questionable position we are asked to make the leap to believing that it is there as a result of design rather than accident, when there are no grounds whatsoever for believing it to be so. Only when we can say it was not a result of accident can we raise the question of who actually designed it. But such issues simply don’t arise in the minds of the miracle-hunters. It is simply assumed that it wasn’t a human being, but rather a certain God who is responsible. Again, there is no rational basis given for this belief. In fact, it might much more plausibly be a joke on the part of a lumberjack. Next, we are expected to leap further into supposing that this woman carved by the hand of God is indeed the virgin Mary rather than someone else. And finally, we are to presume that she is there to call people back to the church. None of this testifies to anything remotely like a reasonable approach to religion, and until such religious folks drop the silliness they will fail to convince anyone other than the most gullible.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Faith, Miracles

Was Blind but now I see

At Christmas I was delighted to get tickets to see the Blind Boys of Alabama in Belfast later this year. I saw them a few years ago, and wrote an article on the back of my experience. An edited version appears below.


I had the pleasure of seeing the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Grand Opera House last week, and what a show it was.

Four of us went: my atheist father [no longer an atheist], my mother, my devout Christian grandmother [now deceased], and me: a Christian. A pretty diverse bunch. And to the credit of the Blind Boys we all loved it. From the start it was superb. Jimmy Carter is the leader of the bunch, a man as old as my grandmother who had as much energy as I do. What made them so fantastic was more than just the music.

The Blind Boys (4 out of 7 of them are blind) don’t ask for pity or sympathy because of their disability. I’ve seen people with lesser disabilities complain about their lot, about how hard life has been to them. Not so the Blind Boys. They don’t do self-pity. For them their disability is seen as a blessing, and even a source of humour. Getting up from his chair and reaching for his microphone Jimmy Carter had wandered slightly sideways and was left groping aimlessly in the air before finally laying his hands on it and remarking (with an Alabama accent that made it all the more humorous): “Well, I suppose that means you all know I can’t see. No hidin’ it now.” They’re a great example of disabled people getting on with their lives and enjoying themselves.

Not only are the Blind Boys fantastic musicians and vocalists, they also know that they are and aren’t afraid of saying so. But, somehow it never comes across as smug arrogance. The only thing that irks me more than brazen arrogance is false humility – which seems to infect much of the music industry these days. The Blind Boys have a remarkable genuine humility blended wonderfully with a massive dose of self-confidence. Telling us all how great they are at singing, Jimmy Carter quips: “Blind Boys don’t brag. They just state facts.” They are great singers: fact. So, I guess Jimmy would be right on the money there.

As you may know the Blind Boys are also unashamedly religious, but they are so without many of the excesses of modern day Christianity. They aren’t preachy. They never tell you that you’re going to hell for disagreeing. Their gospel message is one of joy – a joy that springs from a sure faith in God, and a delight that one day they’ll sing for Him in heaven (no doubt informing God about just how good they are: stand aside angels and arch-angels, eh?). All they want to do is make people happy. Jimmy Carter announces from the start: “All we want is for you to go home feeling uplifted.” Their theology might come across as a little bit trite at times: “no matter what trouble is going on in the world [the Iraq war at the time], God is in control,” but they aren’t theologians. The manner of their religious expression has a far greater impact than any amount of traditional preaching. No matter how clichéd their religious pronouncements sometimes sound you’re more inclined to agree because of the manner in which it’s said. The aurora of joy and peace that surrounds them is something that I rarely see these days. Disagree with what they say, but they make you smile when they say it. And that’s a rare gift.

This joy and happiness that the Blind Boys exude also jars with the manner of many of our “New Atheists,” and reminds me of one of the problems I see in that movement. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris & Hitchens [peace be upon him] get labeled “atheist fundamentalists,” and not without good reason. They tend to share many of the same character traits as the worst religious fundamentalists, including the often shrill and manic nature of many of their pronouncements. And just like religious fundamentalists they make little effort to understand the object of their criticism: for instance Dawkins’ intellectually pedestrian book “The God Delusion” shows little more understanding of religion than you would expect from a High School student of Religious Education. And often they aren’t motivated by anything other than hatred of the other side: a fact beautifully illustrated by Christopher Hitchens who calls anyone with any hint of religion about them evil or stupid or both. Many who wear the new atheist jersey strike me as terribly bitter men and women with nothing to offer humanity other than vitriolic damnations of all who disagree. It seems as if they have lost any belief in progress and purpose in life and are simply bitter at those who still have some vision of good, some sense of meaning and purpose. Frankly, they need to smile a bit more. Is atheism something that cannot be enjoyed? A glimpse at the current crop of “New Atheists” doesn’t give much hope.

And it is this feature that “New Atheism” would need to capture. They need to move far beyond their rather unimpressive critique of religion that’s long on polemic and short on decent arguments. They need to give humanity something more positive, something to live for, something to give people meaning and purpose to their lives. Something to be celebrated. Disagree with every religion on earth, but there’s no denying that religion excels as providing this for people. What will “New Atheists” offer humanity in place of religion? Hitchens offers: “Probably the most daunting task that we face, as partly rational animals with adrenal glands that are too big and prefrontal lobes that are too small, is the contemplation of our own relative weight in the scheme of things…the awareness that our death is coming and will be succeeded by the death of the species and the heat death of the universe is scant comfort.” Is that it? It doesn’t mean atheism is false, but if it’s true and if this is the best its defenders can offer then it’s pretty bad news for humanity.

One might be forgiven for thinking that such an over-the-top crusade against religion is a ruse: a way for “New Atheists” to avoiding any reflection on the lack of popular appeal of their own agenda, with their reveling in causing offence to religious people bordering on the self-indulgent. And I think people will soon tire of it. What next for them?

Anyway, who would I rather sit in the pub and have a pint with? I’d choose the Blind Boys any day over fundamentalist Christians – who wouldn’t go to a pub anyway – and fundamentalist atheists with little sense of joy and purpose, who’d probably sit and sneer at everyone else until someone throws them out for sucking the souls out of everyone. The Blind Boys are sure. The Blind boys are happy. And that sense of happiness is wonderfully infectious. They have a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives that I envy, and they absolutely delight in it.

The high point of their concert was their singing of “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” One of the lines of Amazing Grace says: “I once was lost, but now I’m found; Was blind, but now I see.”

And that sums up the Blind Boys of Alabama: they’re blind, but they sure can see.


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Filed under Atheism, Faith, Music