The “Beautiful Mind” rebuttal

The “Puddleglum Defense” of Christianity is no match for the “Beautiful Mind” rebuttal.

If you haven’t read the Narnia series before, it will be hard for me to explain this post to you. But all seven Narnia books were very familiar to me growing up, and had a shaping effect on my ideas of theology.

The character Puddleglum gives a speech towards the end of the fourth book, The Silver Chair, in which he metaphorically defends Christian faith against doubt.

I used to find this a powerful moment in the book, and a powerful defense of belief as well. It’s only as I have grown older that I realized another fictional story provides the perfect rebuttal to this claim.

If you’ve never read this series, it’s presented as a fantasy series, but Lewis is more concerned with presenting theology than telling the story.

To recap: our heroes have journeyed deep under the earth, to a dark, subterranean world, to rescue a prince from an evil witch with mind-controlling powers. They’ve found the prince and are trying to escape, when they’re cornered by the witch who begins to ensorcell them with an intoxicating scent and a mind-numbing, hypnotic sound. They have what appears to be a ‘debate’ over the nature of reality, but thanks to the magic, our heroes begin to forget the real world even exists. As they succumb to the witch’s power and their minds become confused, they lose their memory of the sky and fresh air and the Lion (Aslan, who is God in this world), and become convinced they have always lived underground in the witch’s kingdom. Dejected, they repeat the false truths she gives them – there is no sun. There has never been a sun. There has never been any world but this one.

To save the day, Puddleglum takes action, disrupts the spell, and makes a speech.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

It’s great. It’s moving. Search online, and you’ll come across bloggers calling it “one of the most inspiring declarations of faith I’ve ever read.”

But as I said, I only found it convincing as a defense of Christianity back when I was a Christian, and didn’t need convincing.

The chief problem with this speech is that it only works because we, the readers, know already that Puddleglum’s world is true.

They’re not really babies playing a game. They really do come from a real world. And we the readers know it. If the world he’s talking about didn’t exist, the whole speech would fall flat.

How do we know this? All we have to do is look at the movie, A Beautiful Mind.

A Beautiful Mind concerns the brilliant mathematician John Nash, who gets involved in spywork during the cold war. He’s able to find and decode Soviet messages hidden in ordinary newspaper and magazine articles. His secret life working with the CIA sometimes puts him in danger, as he nearly dies during a shootout and car chase between his handler and Soviet agents.

Eventually, he is captured by Soviet secret agents and taken to an alleged psychiatric hospital. There, the agents try to convince him he’s not really working for the CIA, and he made the whole thing up in his mind, but Nash stands firm and won’t give up his secrets.

Except…the doctors and nurses of the hospital aren’t really Soviet spies. They are really doctors and nurses, and the hospital really is a hospital. The mathematician has paranoid schizophrenia, and he really did invent his whole involvement with the CIA based upon hallucinations.

There aren’t really secret messages hidden in magazines. Nash is imagining them to be there, not really decoding anything. The car chase and shootout never really happened, and his handler doesn’t exist. Nash has been delivering the results of his ‘decoding’ to the CIA at a secret location at an abandoned building for months now, but when his wife goes there to investigate, she finds all the documents are still there, stuffed in a slot. Nobody—CIA, Soviet, or otherwise—has been collecting them.

It’s extremely difficult for Nash to come to grips with the truth, and to believe that all these exciting things he has done were not real.

However, his hallucinations definitely are detrimental to his life. He’d been spending countless hours and lots of stress looking for those hidden messages. He feared for his life during the car chase.

And after he’s released from the hospital, he relapses and gets worse. He nearly drowns his own infant son—leaving him unsupervised in a bathtub filling with water because he believes one of his hallucinations is watching the kid for him. He even attacks his own wife—but from his perspective, he wasn’t attacking her, he was trying to push her out of the way because a CIA agent was about to shoot and kill her.

Several things are abundantly clear in this story.

John Nash is not really working for the CIA. His belief that he is working for the CIA is causing harm to himself and his family. And if he doesn’t overcome his false beliefs, he will lose a great deal of good things from his life.

In other words, if he were to adopt the “Puddleglum Defense”, he would end up harming himself.

What if Nash were to decide that he liked the story of the CIA work better than the story of schizophrenia? Certainly the first story was more exciting, more flattering, and more rewarding. What if, like Puddleglum, he told the psychiatrist “Maybe I’m only a baby making up a story, but the made-up things seem to be more important than the real ones. My play story is much better than this world you live in. So, I’m going to live in the play-world; I’m going to keep working for the CIA, even if there isn’t any CIA to work for, and I’m going to keep uncovering those Soviet secrets even if there are no Soviets.”

We in the audience wouldn’t admire him for this stance. And it wouldn’t give him a better life anyway. He world be wrong—the things in the real world really are worth living for.

If he decided to stick with the imaginary world, he would lose his wife. He would lose his child. He would would lose his friends, and only interact with imaginary ones. He might lose his job, which means he would lose his house. He might end up on the street, hungry, talking to thin air, shuffling through life with no accomplishments. Eventually he might get himself killed.

Instead, he does what Puddleglum (and C.S. Lewis) won’t do. He listens to reason—unpleasant as it may be—and as a result, he’s able to be a good husband to his wife, and a good father to his son, and he wins a Nobel prize for his revolutionary work on game theory.

A person who talked like Puddleglum in real life wouldn’t be inspirational. He would be delusional.

It’s not better to retreat into a fantasy world just because you don’t like the real one.

The real way forward for someone like Puddleglum is not to choose what to believe based on what you’d prefer to believe. It’s to face reality as it exists, and create a beautiful life out of whatever world you can.

You are a mouflon: encouraging truth against Christianity’s anti-humanism

Encouraging thought of the day: you are a mouflon.

Wikipedia tells me that the mouflon is the precursor to modern domesticated sheep. This majestic, wild creature was slowly changed by humans into the fluffy creatures we know today.

I bring this up because I’m so tired of Christians telling me that I’m a helpless little sheep in need of a shepherd.

I was at my parents’ church this Sunday, and the adult Sunday school class was going through Max Lucado’s Traveling Light, a study book based on the 23rd Psalm. You know, the famous one about the Lord as your shepherd.

I’m surprised at how anti-human this teaching is. Even more surprising I would have accepted it just a few years ago.

The whole chapter this week was about the “burden of self-reliance.” Continue reading

Religious chemotherapy (Who cares about atheism anyway?)

Why talk about atheism? Why would anyone want to gather to talk about what they don’t believe? How can you define yourself by what you are not? You don’t make gatherings for people to talk about how they don’t believe in unicorns, or faeries, or leprechauns. So why make such a big deal about not believing in a god?

Chemotherapy is of no use at all without cancer. It is a powerful poison that can kill instead of cure a patient if it is not administered carefully. It is nothing at all but an anti-cancer.

Why would doctors get together to talk about chemotherapy, an anti-something, when they could be talking about what they are for instead of what they are against?

If there was no cancer, there would be no chemotherapy.

If there was no AIDS virus, there would be no AIDS medications.

If there was no smallpox, there would be no smallpox vaccine.

If there were no major bacterial infections, there would be no antibiotics.

I don’t know how every atheist thinks about atheism. I believe for me, and probably for a lot of other ex-Christians out there, atheism is a vital tool to help us truly escape the clutches of fundamentalist thought control we grew up with.

Now, some people escape fundamentalism without the use of atheism. Some can trek from conservative, literal Christianity into a more progressive, inclusive form of the religion, and that’s okay for them. But for others, the fear of hell, and the need to obey an almighty god, are drilled into our heads so much, it takes a radical shift to truly throw all that off.

I think it’s nearly impossible to have a constructive, free exploration of what is right and wrong, what is true and false, if at the same time you have the threat of hell hanging over your head. Christianity has evolved to keep people silent, unquestioning, and obedient. That’s how it gained its power.

I wasn’t always for marriage equality

July 2015 and marriage equality is a real thing. Who knew this would happen?

In 2010 I was fresh off the boat, so to speak, back from a year of intense missionary training and missionary work in Africa. I’d been isolated from the “normal” world and seeped in an environment which made it easy for me to only think in one way. I’d gone back and forth on my thoughts about homosexuality up to this point; I couldn’t see how it could be wrong, looking at the facts, but I couldn’t see how it could be right, looking at the Bible. Missionary culture made this easy; the Bible is always right, and anything else is just an error. We even heard testimony from an ex-gay man, who said God had shown him he’d marry a woman someday.

In this mindset, there was no question in my mind what I should do. So confession time: The Iowa Supreme Court had just legalized marriage in Iowa, and there was quite a bit of uproar. In 2010 there was a movement to vote out as many of those justices that were up for retention. I was glad, at the time, to be part of the movement voting them out.

I’m happy to say two years later, the remaining justices that had made that decision were up for retention, and this time I had the pleasure of voting to keep them. At this point, the tide had turned against Bob Vander Plaatz and his coalition. The vote for retention caught on, not just as a pro-equality thing, but as a “protect our democracy” thing, with the idea that judges shouldn’t be subject to the whims of the electorate. The remaining judges won retention by a wide margin, and I have to say I’m proud I was part of that.

What about you? How have you changed in your thoughts on homosexuality and gay marriage? Do you have votes and positions you made that you just look back on now and shake your head? I’m sorry I voted against equality, but I think on a day like this all of us former anti-gay folks can look back and celebrate how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve changed.

Atheist Parable: The better playground

Welcome to my Atheist Parables series. In the tradition of Plato, Jesus, and Aesop, I will use stories and allegory to examine issues of faith, reality and reason.

Here, I’ll share a thought experiment related to Pascal’s Wager, and to the charge that “Atheists just want to sin.” Is that a legitimate charge, or are there other ways to look at it?

We were pretty excited when our parents dropped us off at the city park.  It was not our own city, you see; we were visiting a distant town, and the playground here was spectacular.  There was a giant wooden construction with bridges and towers, secret passages, slides, and swings.  There were seesaws and bouncers and a short climbing wall, and we were itching to go and enjoy it.

We were just about to dart off into the throng of happy, screaming boys and girls, when Jake stopped us.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Jake said.  “Didn’t you hear what your mother said?”
Continue reading

Verses on healing

Recently I was talking with an online Christian about healing. One of the many reasons I don’t believe the Bible anymore is the Bible contains many, repeated promises that prayer can heal people. The Christian told me this was not the case. Here’s her direct quote:

God does not promise to heal those who pray. Never does the Bible make this promise, although I was once in a group who taught this very thing. It is false, and it is an evil lie, giving false hope to desperate people and then destroying their faith when God doesn’t heal them or their loved one.

So I did a quick collection of some of the many Bible verses that do, in fact, promise healing.

Let’s talk about Jesus himself. What was Jesus most known for? Powerful preaching, and healing the sick. Flip through the book of Mark, and the headings are things like “Jesus heals a paralytic”, “A man with a withered hand,” “Jesus heals a deaf man,” “Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus,” and so on. Continue reading

Police, parents, and the problem of evil

The question “Why does a good god allow suffering?” is one of the oldest in religion, yet Christians seem to think they have the answer. The problem is, I’ve never heard a convincing answer.

A PhD Christian scholar recently wrote a piece in Christian today, saying that a god who allows evil in the world is no different from a parent who has a child, even though the parent knows that child may suffer someday.

He also says God does not stand by and watch pain; he comes down and experiences it with us.

The loving parent is not the one who never risks suffering in a child’s life; the loving parent – whether human or divine – is the one who is willing to suffer alongside his child, and willing to make whatever sacrifices necessary to ensure that one day that suffering can be overcome.

[Jesus] is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us.

The website has no place for me to leave comments or send email to the author, so I shall reply here.

Dear Dr. Vince Vitale, Continue reading