A response to offended Christians

Rev. Michael Brewster (left) and Justin Vacula (right) in 2013
Rev. Michael Brewster (left) and Justin Vacula (right) in 2013

Since I first came out as an atheist in 2009, Christians have claimed offense in response to my public efforts. Here’s my short response.

‘I am offended’ is often a conversation stopper. Rather than discussing why someone is offended or discussing an issue at hand, some Christians will cast me as a bad person for openly disagreeing with their religious views while resorting to tactics of imposing shame and guilt.

No matter what my message is or how mild I may be in transmitting it, people often complain whether saying the word ‘atheists,’ appearing on a bus advertisement, is “attacking religion” or a banner reading ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ is offensive and disrespectful [when hung as a response to a National Day of Prayer event] as Rev. Michael Brewster — a pastor I recently debated — explained to me.

The message ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ — while it is provocative — is not an attack on an individual. Rather, ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ is a response to a claim — that praying to a supernatural being will result in supernatural intervention in human affairs — stating that the claim fails to, at the very least, stand to scrutiny.

Banners are equally prominent on 5/5/14 - days after the 5/1/14 National Day of Prayer event
Banners are equally prominent on 5/5/14 – days after the 5/1/14 National Day of Prayer event

Why would someone claim offense when a belief they hold is challenged? I can understand that people may cherish their beliefs and, because of this, feel slight discomfort when challenged, but when faced with such a mild message such as ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ claiming offense seems to be an inappropriate response. After all, there ought to be a good reason for a person claiming offense.

I could understand Christians claiming offense if a banner read ‘Christianity is a mental illness’ or ‘All Christians are unintelligent’ because both claims would rightly be viewed as personal attacks intended to demean individuals. ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer,’ though, is very much unlike offensive banners previously mentioned.

If a mild challenge to your religious beliefs leads you to claim offense, I would like you to evaluate your feeling. Ask yourself why you are offended. Why would someone so firmly and sincerely holding a belief claim offense when a belief is challenged in a mild way? Why should your feelings take precedent over others sharing their views? Should your claiming offense compel others to silence themselves? Why should others silence themselves when your sharing of beliefs is permissible?

Personally, I don’t claim offense when Christians share their beliefs. I don’t even tell people who inform me that I deserve to burn in Hell for eternity (and argue that this is moral) that I am offended. I instead have conversations with people, talking about disagreements, and do not engage in shaming tactics. Perhaps I will author a response to someone on my website or write something on social media.

Pastor Dan Nichols and Justin Vacula Photo by A. Elizabeth Baumeitster
Pastor Dan Nichols and Justin Vacula
Photo by A. Elizabeth Baumeitster

Since 2009, I have regularly exposed myself to arguments from Christians, participated in many open discussions/debates, invited discussion from Christians, and have even protested Christian events. I had numerous discussions with Christians and do not claim offense.

Why, then, does the Christian claim offense when I do not? Is the reason lack of exposure to different viewpoints, immaturity, unwillingness to engage with people who disagree, a connection to a belief so personal that any disagreement is thought of as disrespect? Is an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving being somehow slighted by a mere mortal openly disagreeing with a claim about a supernatural phenomenon?

If your Christian belief is extremely important, and you believe that dedication to God/a church is imperative, you should be concerned with whether your beliefs are true and — in doing so — seek challenges to your beliefs. For if Christian belief is unjustified, you have misprioritized and were deceived. If Christian belief is justified — and you believe you should save souls — if should be important to, as the Bible commands in 1 Peter 3:15, prepare a defense for your faith and do so with gentleness and respect. After all, what should truth have to fear?

As always, please leave your comments below.

2014 National Day of Prayer protest experience

Photo with members of Restored Chruch who attended the National Day of Prayer event
Photo with members of Restored Chruch who attended the National Day of Prayer event

I recount my experiences protesting the 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre commemorating the National Day of Prayer.

Due to the unprominent and late placement of the Freedom From Religion Foundation ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner, this piece recounting my experiences — namely discussions — at the Circle the Square With Prayer event commemorating the National Day of Prayer was delayed.

I spoke with a newspaper reporter about my protest with members of the NEPA Freethought Society (read about the published article and my other, unpublished thoughts here). Thanks to NEPA Freethought Society members Rodney Collins and Erik Dickerson for accompanying me at this event.

Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight
Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight

I approached the Circle the Square With Prayer event with a foamboard sign and, rather than engaging people in discussion, allowed people to engage me. The first person who engaged me in a discussion told me she believed the Christian god exists because she prevailed through depression. She explained that ‘nothing else worked,’ but after she prayed to God she was cured. It’s too bad that she won’t take personal credit for her improved health.

I asked the woman if she had a support system of family and friends to help her. She explained that a support system, medication (she voluntarily disclosed this without my asking, and ‘everything else’ did not work. I asked her, then, how non-religious persons prevail through mental health issues and she didn’t provide an answer to this. I also noted that people of different religious beliefs prevail through mental health issues [and claim that deities they exist helped them].

Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)
Protesting 2014 Circle the Square With Prayer event recognizing the government-sanctioned National Day of Prayer (front of sign)

Belief in specific deities cannot be warranted through religious experiences – at least when people claiming different things about different gods are using similar thought processes to arrive at different claims. The Christian who uses religious experience to arrive at a conclusion that God exists faces the Hindu who uses religious experience to arrive at a conclusion that Ganesh, for instance, exists. Both Ganesh and God cannot exist.

At least three individuals engaged in the ‘people would not die for a lie’ reasoning – pointing to martyrdom and people willing to die for Christian belief as evidence for the truth-value for Christianity. I explained that people of many different religious orientations are willing to die for their beliefs and indeed die for their beliefs. The fact that someone dies or would die holding a belief does not demonstrate that the belief is true, but rather shows that a person likely feels sincere and fervent. Read more of my thoughts on this here.frontsign

One person told me that compassion is not consistent with the atheistic worldview – that an atheist has no reason to treat others with compassion [and only in a Christian worldview may compassion be logical]. After explaining that atheism is not a worldview (it is a label for someone who lacks belief in any gods – nothing less, nothing more), I explained that there are many reasons people exercise compassion including a want to help others; the benefit of feeling happy after engaging in good deeds; and a realization that other humans are like us and have similar wants, needs, and desires. A god belief is not required for one to exercise or explain compassion.

A man speaking at-length about the Shroud of Turin was arguing that since the image on the Shroud of Turin cannot be [re]created by humans, and there is no natural explanation for the Shroud of Turin, the Shroud of Turin is proof for God. Taking advantage of my smartphone after identifying the ‘mystery therefore magic’ fallacy, I found an article from Nature explaining that the shroud was a medieval forgery and another article reporting on an Italian scientist recreating the shroud. After the man said something like ‘you cannot trust what scientists say because they are lying to you about evolution’ I exited the conversation.

Banners are equally prominent on 5/5/14 - days after the 5/1/14 National Day of Prayer event
Banners are equally prominent on 5/5/14 – days after the 5/1/14 National Day of Prayer event

One person told me I have faith just like Christian have faith in God because when I turn on a lightswitch I have faith that a light will turn on. I explained that my belief isn’t like Christian faith because I have, throughout my life, seen lights turn on when I turn on a switch. When the light did not turn on, I modified my belief and reasoned that something was wrong. I have a justified true belief, then, that lights will turn on when I flip lightswitches that I have seen work before.

Pascal’s Wager also propped its head into discussions…

Overall, I was not impressed with the level of conversation at the event because it was not very challenging or thoughtful. One pastor at the event — someone who asked to lay his hands on me in prayer (watch the video below) — however, brought more thoughtful discussion and offered to have a conversation following the event. We’re currently having an e-mail exchange after speaking on the telephone about the possibility of a future live, open-to-the-public discussion similar to the discussion I had with Pastor Dan Nichols.

Thankfully, although Pastor Michael Brewster was arguing that my hanging of the ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner [was seen as] offensive and disrespectful (I will respond to this in a future piece), almost everyone I had conversation with was respectful. I plan to protest and hang a banner in response to the 2015 Wilkes-Barre National Day of Prayer event.

At the end of the day, people were educated on matters of atheism and separation of church and state (although most people didn’t want to talk about separation of church and state). Throughout the event, people — most of them Christians — told me that they have read my content, listened to my discussions with pastors, and thought that I was respectful and well-educated. It’s nice to leave a positive impression on people and dispel the notion that atheists are cynical curmudgeons.  This is a success.

Appearance on Road to Reason

I appeared on episode 38 of  Road to Reason — a public access weekly television program broadcasting throughout Fairfax County in Virginia — to discuss my August 31 “Does the Christian god exist?” debate with Reverend Michael Brewster which had taken place within Mount Zion Baptist Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA (watch video, listen to audio of the debate).

I appear at the 32 minute mark of the Road to Reason episode embedded below. Consider watching the entire video.

Enjoy and, as always, feel free to comment.

Response to Rev. Brewster’s cosmological argument

Rev. Michael Brewster (left) and Justin Vacula (right)
Rev. Michael Brewster (left) and Justin Vacula (right)

Reverend Brewster presented a formulation of a cosmological argument during the August 31 “Does the Christian god exist?” debate I participated in (see video and audio-only versions for context). I will address his claims in this piece by re-presenting some objections I put forth in the debate and providing further analysis of his assertions.

Brewster presented the following assertions in his opening statement: (1) what is finite requires a cause, (2) a cause must be greater than or equal to its effects, (3) all effects must have a cause, (4) an effect is anything that requires a beginning, (5) anything that has a beginning must have a cause, (6) the universe has a beginning, (7) God — as described in the Bible — is harmonious with this first cause.

A reformulation of Reverend Brewster’s argument  is as follows:
(1) Whatever is finite and had a beginning had a cause
(2) The universe is finite and had a beginning
(3) The universe had a cause
(4) God, as described in the Bible, is harmonious with the first cause of the universe
(5) God is the cause of the universe

Brewster’s argument fails to point to the Christian god; he merely assumes that the Bible is true in his argumentation and says that God, as described in the Bible, is harmonious with the first cause of the universe. Mere harmony with what Brewster thinks aligns with the first cause of the universe is not sufficient to establish the existence of the Christian god.

Why prefer the Christian god as an explanation when compared to other explanations? Why is the Christian god a better candidate for cause of the universe when compared to a team of gods, an all-evil god, an impersonal creator being with limited powers, or advanced technology such as a computer simulation?

Further problematic, Brewster’s cosmological argument does not allow us to arrive at supposed truths about Christianity such as ‘God sent Jesus to die on a cross for the redemption of sins’ or ‘saved individuals go to Heaven while the unsaved suffer eternal torment in Hell.’ The argument also doesn’t point to an all-loving, all-knowing, or all-powerful god. This cosmological argument, then, as presented, is useless.156604039

Worse yet, Pastor Brewster’s assertions concerning cause and effect are problematic. The principle of sufficient reason (PSR), the idea that all effects have a cause, is an inductive judgment based on events we experience in this world. For instance, we believe that a ship does not materialize out of thin air, but rather is assembled by a team of shipbuilders because of our experience and knowledge concerning ships and shipbuilders. Most of what we experience and know — at a macro level, visible to us — operates under the PSR, but this reasoning breaks down when applied to the cosmological and quantum level.

Much unlike experience and knowledge of ships and shipbuilders, we lack experience and knowledge of events occurring at cosmological and quantum levels. Our knowledge of events occurring at the quantum and cosmological levels — when compared to events at the macro level — is very limited. We can’t simply apply PSR (from the macro level) to quantum and cosmological levels because different rules apply and the situations by which we know of causation are very dissimilar. PSR simply faces challenges when dealing with modern discoveries/theories in science such as quantum fluctuations, quantum foam, and virtual particles. These modern discoveries/theories should lower our confidence in PSR when applied at all levels of reality.

Finally, Brewster’s argument assumes the universe is finite and had a beginning. Brewster, though, does not provide justification for these assumptions. Perhaps the universe is not finite and did not have a beginning. Brewster suggests whatever is finite has a cause, so if we are to assume this is true — for the purposes of discussion — and also assume that the universe is not finite, the universe does not need a cause.

I find cosmological arguments — like Brewster’s — to be unconvincing and based on dubious assumptions such as whatever has a beginning has a cause, all effects require a cause, the universe is finite, and the universe had a cause. At best, cosmological arguments lead us to believe that the universe had a cause and even if we for some reason believe that the cause of the universe is a transcendent being this is a far shot from the Christian god.