Churches and the Corporate Org Chart

(Today, I’m pleased to have a guest post from Richard S. Russell, an atheist from Wisconsin and commenter at this blog.)

In these difficult economic times, you may have heard more than usual about GDP. It’s short for “Gross Domestic Product” and is the dollar value of all the goods and services produced within a given country (or state or region) in a year. “Goods” are products, material objects that customers want; “services” are procedures, actions performed to help customers. Together, these products and procedures reflect the wealth generated by the economy.

In the U.S., a lot of goods and services are produced by big corporations, which are organized to do so effectively and efficiently, using those techniques much beloved of Econ 101 courses, division of labor and specialization.

Here’s an organization chart for a typical manufacturing corporation, one that produces material goods:

And here’s what goes on inside each of those little boxes:

(1) Management makes decisions, tells everyone else what to do, and handles investor relations.

(2) Internal Services support the rest of the company in general; the category includes accounting, info tech, personnel (human resources), labor relations (employment relations or ER), safety, maintenance, regulatory compliance, and legal.

(3) Research and Development (R&D) investigates new ways of doing things and tests them out.

(4) Purchasing acquires raw materials, equipment, and property.

(5) Manufacturing (the biggest part of the company, employing the most people) generates actual useful products.

(6) Inventory Control deals with both raw materials and finished products and includes transportation, warehousing, shipping, delivery, and quality assurance.

(7) Marketing uses media to spread the word that people should buy the company’s products.

(8) Sales works directly with individual customers to get them the products they want in exchange for their money.

(9) Customer Service works directly with customers who are having problems with a product.

The chart gets slimmed down a little if we’re talking about services instead of goods. Here’s an org chart for a typical service corporation:

Notice that manufacturing has vanished altogether (no goods being produced), and that the bulk of the people working for the company are the ones directly helping customers. You still have Purchasing and Inventory Control, but these are much smaller operations (since they now deal mainly with furniture and office supplies instead of heavy machinery and raw materials) and so are generally subsumed under Internal Services.

Finally we have the kind of organizations that produce neither goods nor services, namely churches. Here’s how they work:

There are still lots of entries under Management (bishops, archbishops, abbots, cardinals, popes, etc.), since these guys (by which I mean “men”) are really into hierarchy.

There’s the normal array of Internal Services, with the diminished activity under ER (no unions, heavy emphasis on conformity and obedience) and regulatory compliance more than offset by the need for lots of work under legal (discrimination, pedophilia, etc.).

Nothing under R&D. (Create something new?!)

Nothing under Purchasing. (Spend? Contribute to the economy?!)

Nothing under Manufacturing. (Useful products!?)

Nothing under Inventory Control.

But tons and tons o’ time is devoted to (or, more properly, “wasted on”) Marketing and Sales. In fact, in the absence of goods and services, it’s the only thing religion does at all. In other words, the priest class spends all its time pushing companionship with themselves, in return for nothing useful or even (as in the case of more traditional prostitutes) pleasurable.

The most telling part of the chart, though, is Customer “Service,” where the ironic quotation marks emphasize the difference between what a church does and what an actual contributor to GDP does. A responsible, reputable company assumes that, if you’ve got a problem, it’s their own product’s fault, or the result of shoddy service from one of the company’s representatives. But in the case of religion, any counseling they provide for people with problems is designed to show, first and foremost, how the religion itself is never, ever at fault, that the problem is entirely the customer’s, because he or she didn’t follow directions properly. In short, the motto of Customer “Service” for a church is “The customer is always wrong.”

In effect, since religion never solves any problems (not even those of its own making), Customer “Service” is just another mechanism under Sales and Marketing, which is why it’s shown as subsidiary to those activities on the skeletal org chart above.

You know the short word for any activity that’s all talk and no walk (or, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle)? Scam!

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Using the Monty Hall Problem to Undercut Christianity

What is Christianity?I first came across the Monty Hall Problem 20 years ago in Parade magazine:

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats.  You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat.  He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?”

Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

Most people think that it doesn’t matter and that there’s no benefit to switching.  They’re wrong, but more on that in a moment.

Humans have a hard time with probability problems like this one.  You’d think that we’d be fairly comfortable with basic probability, but apparently not.

Here’s another popular probability problem: how many people must you have in a group before it becomes more likely than not that any two of them have the same birthday?

The surprising answer is 23.  In other words, imagine two football teams on the field (11 per team) and then throw in a referee, and it’s more than likely that you’ll find a shared birthday.  If your mind balks at this, test it at your next large gathering.

Now, back to the Monty Hall Problem.  A good way to understand problems like this is to push them to an extreme.  Imagine, for example, that there are not three doors but 300 doors.  There’s still just one good prize, with the rest being goats (the bad prize).

So you pick a door—say number #274.  There’s a 1/300 chance you’re right.  This needs to be emphasized: you’re almost certainly wrong.  Then the game show host opens 298 of the remaining doors: 1, 2, 3, and so on.  He skips door #59 and your door, #274.  Every open door shows a goat.

Now: should you switch?  Of course you should—your initial pick is still almost surely wrong.  The probabilities are 1/300 for #274 and 299/300 for #59.

Another way to look at the problem: do you want to stick with your initial door or do you want all the other doors?  Switching is simply choosing all the other doors, because (thanks to the open doors) you know the only door within that set that could be the winner.

One lesson from this is that our innate understanding of probability is poor, and a corollary is that there’s a big difference between confidence and accuracy.  That is, just because one’s confidence in a belief is high doesn’t mean that the belief is accurate.  This little puzzle does a great job of illustrating this.

Perhaps you’ve already anticipated the connection with choosing a religion.  Let’s imagine you’ve picked your religion—religion #274, let’s say.  For most people, their adoption of a religion is like picking a door in this game show.  In the game show, you don’t weigh evidence before selecting your door; you pick it randomly.  And most people adopt the dominant religion of their upbringing.  As with the game show, the religion in which you grew up is also assigned to you at random.

Now imagine an analogous game, the Game of Religion, with Truth as host.  Out of 300 doors (behind each of which is a religion), the believer picks door #274.  Truth flings open door after door and we see nothing but goats.  Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Mormonism—all goats.  As you suspected, they’re all myth.

Few of us seriously consider or even understand the religions Winti, Candomblé, Mandaeism, or the ancient religions of Central America, for example.  Luckily for the believer, Truth gets around to those doors too and opens them to reveal goats.

Here’s where the analogy between the two games fails.  First, Truth opens all the other doors.  Only the believer’s pick, door #274, is still closed.  Second, there was never a guarantee that any door contained a true religion!  Since the believer likely came to his beliefs randomly, why imagine that his choice is any more likely than the others to hold anything of value?

Every believer plays the Game of Religion, and every believer believes that his religion is the one true religion, with goats behind all the hundreds of other doors.  But maybe there’s a goat behind every door.  And given that the lesson from the 300-door Monty Hall game is that the door you randomly picked at first is almost certainly wrong, why imagine that yours is the only religion that’s not mythology?

Finding Jesus Through Board Games

Does Jesus exist?The Atheist Experience podcast discussed an interesting apologetic several years ago.  Here is my interpretation of this thinking.

Imagine a board game called “Monopoly Plus,” an updated version of the popular board game.  There’s a track around the outside of the board that’s divided into cells.  Each player is represented by a token on the board—a dog, a car, a top hat, and so on—and each player in turn rolls dice to see how many steps to move.  You start with a certain amount of money, and you can buy the properties that you land on as you move around the board.  Players who then land on one of the owned properties must pay the owner rent, and the owner can pay to improve properties so that the rent is higher.

Here’s how you win: you must accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.

Yep, that’s a pretty bad game.  The motivations within the game have absolutely nothing to do with how you win.

Now take that idea about a million times larger, and we have the game of Christianity®—ordinary reality filtered through a Christian worldview.  It’s far more complicated than any board game.  In Christianity, there are good things (love, friendships, possessions, accomplishments, personal victories, etc.) and bad things (illness, death, sorrow, disappointment, personal defeats, etc.), and skillful players maximize the good things and minimize the bad.

Immersed in this huge mass of complexity, we’re told that, in the big picture, it all doesn’t matter.  To win the game you must accept Jesus as your lord and savior.

Why is the game of Christianity any less out of touch with reality than the game of Monopoly Plus?

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Philosophical Grounding: A Parable

God's existence doesn't seem likely.  Why imagine that Jesus is real?Consider this parable:

A certain mathematician, in a philosophical mood one day, wonders what grounds his mathematics.  The math works, of course, but he wonders if he’s missing something foundational.

He consults a friend of his, a theologian.  The theologian knows almost nothing about mathematics, but he knows his Christianity.

The mathematician says, “Mathematics is like an inverted triangle with the most advanced math along the wide top edge.  The top layer is grounded on the math below it, which is grounded on what is below, and so on through the layers, down to arithmetic and logic at the point at the bottom.  And that’s where it stops.”

The theologian nods his head wisely.  “I see the problem—what does the bottom rest on?”

The mathematician was silent.

“In your view, it rests on nothing,” said the theologian.  “It just sits there in midair.  But the problem is easily resolved—mathematics and logic comes from God.  There’s your grounding.”

“Are you saying that I need to convert to Christianity to be a mathematician?”

“No, just realize that you are borrowing from the Christian worldview every time you make a computation or write an equation.”

Satisfied that this nagging problem has been resolved, the mathematician returns to his work and thinks no more of it. 

The End.

So, is the mathematician any better off?  Is he faster or more accurate or more creative?  Do his proofs work now where they hadn’t before?  In short, did he get anything of value from the whole episode?

I’ve heard this “grounding” or “atheists borrow from the Christian worldview” idea many times, but I’ve yet to discover what this missing thing is that is being borrowed.

“God did it” is simply a restatement of the problem.  “God did it” is precisely as useful as “logic and arithmetic are simply properties of our reality” or “that’s just the way it is” or even “I don’t know.”  A curious problem has been suppressed, not resolved.  In fact, the theologian himself has his answer resting in midair because he provides no reason to conclude that God exists.  His claim is no more believable than that of any other religion—that is, not at all.

The person who stops at “God did it” has stated an opinion only—an opinion with no evidence to back it up.  It doesn’t advance the cause of truth one bit.

Mathematics is tested, and it works.  Scratch your head about what grounds it if you want, but God is an unnecessary and unedifying addition to the mix.

10 Reasons the Crucifixion Story Makes No Sense

Does God exist?  You wouldn't think so given the bizarre crucifixion story.I’m afraid that the crucifixion story doesn’t strike me as that big a deal.

The Christian will say that death by crucifixion was a horrible, humiliating way to die.  That the death of Jesus was a tremendous sacrifice, more noble and selfless than a person sacrificing himself for the benefit of a butterfly.  And isn’t it worth praising something that gets us into heaven?

Here are ten reasons why I’m unimpressed.

1. Sure, death sucks, but why single out this one?  Lots of people die.  In fact, lots died from crucifixion.  The death of one man doesn’t make all the others insignificant.  Was Jesus not a man but actually a god?  If so, that fact has yet to be shown.

It’s not like this death is dramatically worse than death today.  Crucifixion may no longer be a worry, but cancer is.  Six hours of agony on the cross is pretty bad, but so is six months of agony from cancer.

2. What about that whole hell thing?  An eternity of torment for even a single person makes Jesus’s agony insignificant by comparison, and it counts for nothing when you consider the billions that are apparently going to hell.

3. Jesus didn’t even die.  The absurdity of the story, of course, is the resurrection.  If Jesus died, there’s no miraculous resurrection, and if there’s a resurrection, there’s no sacrifice through death.  Miracle or sacrifice—you can’t have it both ways.  The gospels don’t say that he died for our sins but that he had a rough couple of days for our sins.

4. Taking on the sin vs. removal of sin aren’t symmetric.  We didn’t do anything to get original sin.  We just inherited it from Adam.  So why do we have to do anything to get the redemption?  If God demands a sacrifice, he got it.  That’s enough.  Why the requirement to believe to access the solution?

5. The reason behind the sacrifice—mankind’s original sin—makes no sense.  Why blame Adam for a moral lapse that he couldn’t even understand?  Remember that he hadn’t yet eaten the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, so who could blame him when he made a moral mistake?

And how can we inherit original sin from Adam?  Why blame us for something we didn’t do?  That’s not justice, and the Bible agrees:

Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin (Deut. 24:16)

6. Jesus made a sacrifice—big deal.  Jesus is perfect, so his doing something noble is like water flowing downhill.  It’s unremarkable since he’s only acting out his nature.  What else would you expect from a perfect being?

But imagine if I sacrificed myself for someone.  In the right circumstance, I’d risk my life for a stranger—or at least I hope I would.  That kind of sacrifice is very different.  A selfish, imperfect man acting against his nature to make the ultimate unselfish sacrifice is far more remarkable than a perfect being acting according to his nature, and yet people make sacrifices for others all the time.  So why single out the actions of Jesus?  Aren’t everyday noble actions by ordinary people more remarkable and laudable?

7. What is left for God to forgive?  The Jesus story says that we’ve sinned against God (a debt).  Let’s look at two resolutions to this debt.

(1) God could forgive the debt of sin.  You and I are asked to forgive wrongs done against us, so why can’t God?  Some Christians say that to forgive would violate God’s sense of justice, but when one person forgives another’s debt, there’s no violation of justice.  For unspecified reasons, God doesn’t like this route.

And that leaves (2) where Jesus pays for our sin.  But we need to pick 1 or 2, not both.  If Jesus paid the debt, there’s no need for God’s forgiveness.  There’s no longer anything for God to forgive, since there’s no outstanding debt.

Here’s an everyday example: when I pay off my mortgage, the bank doesn’t in addition forgive my debt.  There’s no longer a debt to forgive!  Why imagine that God must forgive us after he’s already gotten his payment?

8. The Jesus story isn’t even remarkable within mythology.  Jesus’s sacrifice was small compared to the Greek god Prometheus, who stole fire from Olympus and gave it to humanity.  Zeus discovered the crime and punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock so that a vulture could eat his liver.  Each night, his liver grew back and the next day the vulture would return, day after agonizing day.  The gospel story, where Jesus is crucified once and then pops back into existence several days later, is unimpressive by comparison.

9. The Bible itself rejects God’s savage “justice.”  This is the 21st century.  Must Iron Age customs persist so that we need a human sacrifice?  If God loves us deeply and he wants to forgive us, couldn’t he just … forgive us?  That’s how we do it, and that’s the lesson we get from the parable of the Prodigal Son where the father forgives the son even after being wronged by him.  If that’s the standard of mercy, why can’t God follow it?  Since God is so much greater a being than a human, wouldn’t he be that much more understanding and willing to forgive?

If we were to twist the Prodigal Son parable to match the crucifixion story, the father might demand that the innocent son be flogged to pay for the crime of the prodigal son.  Where’s the logic in that?

10. The entire story is incoherent.  Let’s try to stumble through the drunken logic behind the Jesus story.

God made mankind imperfect and inherently vulnerable to sin.  Living a sinless life is impossible, so hell becomes unavoidable.  That is, God creates people knowing for certain that they’re going to deserve eternity in hell when they die.  Why create people that he knew would be destined for eternal torment?

But don’t worry—God sacrificed Jesus, one of the persons of God, so mankind could go to heaven instead.

So God sacrificed himself to himself so we could bypass a rule that God made himself and that God deliberately designed us to never be able to meet?  I can’t even understand that; I certainly feel no need to praise God for something so nonsensical.  It’s like an abused wife thanking her abuser.  We can just as logically curse God for consigning us to hell from birth.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for being unimpressed by the crucifixion story.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

James Dobson Needs My Money (and an Education)

Big wad of US currencyJames Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, was good enough to send me a letter a few days ago.  Not a personal letter—he basically just wants me to give him some of my money—but a letter nonetheless.  He outlined some of his views about the Christian foundation our country was built on, reported how our country is going to hell in a jet-propelled handbasket, and made the irresistible swipe at homosexuality.

In case he forgot to send you one, I’ve highlighted a few interesting bits of his letter to reply to.

Our Founding Fathers clearly understood the relationship between Christian Truth and the stability of our (then) new nation. Here are just a few quotes that express that essential connection.

And he goes on to quote mine the founding fathers’ writings to find their most pro-Christian statements.

When pundits bring up quotes from the founders, you know that they’re out of arguments.  The U.S. Constitution is the law of the land, regardless of what the founders thought, wrote, or wanted.  They had their chance to define how the country should be run, and they seized it.  That document was revolutionary at the time and now, with a few amendments, effectively governs us more than two centuries later.  It supersedes the other writings of the founders.

Thomas Jefferson, … revisionists tell us, wanted a “wall of separation” to protect the government from people of faith.

No need for revisionists—Thomas Jefferson himself talked about “a wall of separation between church and state.”  And, to be precise, the First Amendment protects the people (whether or not of faith) from the government, not the other way around.

Dobson then goes on to give a long quote by Abraham Lincoln.  Well, not really by Lincoln.  This was a Senate resolution for a National Fast Day signed by Lincoln.  And this was the same Lincoln who said, “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad.  That’s my religion.”

This was the same Lincoln who said, “The Bible is not my book, and Christianity is not my religion.”

This was the same Lincoln who said, “My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.”

The private Lincoln wasn’t the strong Christian that Dobson imagines.  (And it wouldn’t change the Constitution if he were.)

We are witnessing an unprecedented campaign to secularize our society and “de-moralize” our institutions from the top down. …  Most forms of prayer have been declared unconstitutional in the nation’s schools. The Ten Commandments have been prohibited on school bulletin boards. …  In this wonderful Land of the Free, we have gagged and bound all of our public officials, our teachers, our elected representatives, and our judges.

Again: read the Constitution.  Prayer should never have been allowed in schools.  Ten Commandments in courthouses or in schools?  Clearly out of step with the Constitution.

I don’t want to see Christian citizens gagged; I want them to have the same public speech rights that I do.  But when you’re acting as a public official, teacher, or elected representative, the rules are different.  The First Amendment demands that you create an unbiased environment.  Evangelism with prayer or religious documents is forbidden.  Dobson somehow finds this a shocking new realization, but the First Amendment was adopted in 1791.

As a secularist, I know when to stop.  I’m only asking that the First Amendment be followed.  I want no Christian preferences—such as “In God We Trust” as the motto, prayers before government meetings, Creationism in schools, crosses on public land, and so on—but when we have that situation, I will stop.  I’m not striving for a society where Christianity is illegal.  (See what a good friend a secular Constitution is for the Christian?)

But I see no stopping point on the other side, no fairly unambiguous standard that Christians are pushing for.  If they got prayer back in schools, what would be next?

Since we have effectively censored their expressions of faith in public life, the predictable is happening: a generation of young people is growing up with very little understanding of the spiritual principles on which our country was founded. And we wonder why so many of them can kill, steal, take drugs, and engage in promiscuous sex with no pangs of conscience.

I wonder what happens when Christianity fades away?  Does that society devolve into the post-apocalyptic Mad Max world that Dobson imagines?

Let’s compare other Western societies to find out.  Looking at quantifiable social metrics (homicides, incarceration, juvenile mortality, STDs, abortions, adolescent pregnancies, marriage duration, income disparity, and so on) in 17 Western countries, a 2009 study concluded: “Of the 25 socioeconomic and environmental indicators, the most theistic and procreationist western nation, the U.S., scores the worst in 14 and by a very large margin in 8, very poorly in 2, average in 4, well or very in 4, and the best in 1.”1

Ouch—religiosity is inversely correlated with social health.  Sorry, Dr. Dobson.

It is breathtaking to see how hostile our government has become to traditional marriage, and how both Democrats and Republicans are increasingly antagonistic to parental rights, Christian training, and the financial underpinnings of family life.

I assume that “hostile … to traditional marriage” refers to same-sex marriage.

Help me understand this.  At a time when Christian traditionalists like Dobson lament the high divorce rate and the acceptability of couples living together and even having children without the benefit of marriage, they dismiss a group that is actually embracing marriage.

Same-sex marriage is a celebration of marriage, not an attack.

The hope of the future is prayer and a spiritual renewal that will sweep the nation. It has happened before, and with concerted prayer, could occur again. …  If we continue down the road we are now traveling, I fear for us all.

Yeah, following the rise in Christian fundamentalism does sound like a worrisome future.  We’ve seen that secular, gay-loving Europe eclipses the U.S. in social metrics.

Candidly, this ministry continues to struggle financially, and our very survival will depend on the generosity of our constituents in the next two months.

Translated: “Give me some money.”

Please pray with us about the future of this ministry.

Translated: “Give me some money.”  (I’ve written before about how prayer requests of this sort admit that prayer is useless.)

I suppose that this kind of lashing out at other people brings in the money.  But it’d be nice to see more credible arguments.

1Gregory Paul, “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions,” Evolutionary Psychology, (2009).  7(3): 416.

Photo credit: 401K

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