The Self-Contradictory Nature of Godlessness

I recently read a blog post on Godless in Dixie regarding the supposed anti-human theology that is part of the Christian worldview.  The gentleman writing makes the argument that Christianity inspires self-loathing and that Jesus of Nazareth engaged in what amounts to psychological torture.  You can read the post for yourself.

http://godlessindixie.com/2014/04/25/anti-human-theology-and-cultivated-self-disgust/

First, I’m saddened by his story, because while the whole thing seems like a straw-man, I don’t think it is necessarily a straw-man of his own creation.  The word Christian is rarely used in the Bible.  We throw it around now in a way that means very little.  It is often seen only as some sort of cultural heritage.  As such, people calling themselves Christians, but failing to actually follow Christ in thought or action in any meaningful way can do great damage.  Still, one cannot look to the worst representatives of an enterprise to build a case against the values of that enterprise.  I fear people who have this perception that Christianity encourages self-hatred have had some very poor examples of people in their lives who call themselves Christians.

What does the Biblical narrative teach about people though?  Are we fundamentally garbage?  Should we regard ourselves with guilt and shame?  Do we invent special types of crimes for ourselves?  Can we do no good?  Well, the only way to know what the Bible teaches about such a thing, is to actually look at the Bible in context.

This fellow seems to base his objection to Christianity on a false understanding of who people are, and what they’re relationship is to God according to Biblical teaching.  He says, “Rather than affirming what is good within humanity, it begins with a condemnation of all that is bad”.  This is patently false though.  In the beginning, God created.  The creation included people, who were designed in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  He blessed them, and saw EVERYTHING that had been made, and it was VERY good (Genesis 1:31).  That is the fundamental teaching about people.  Everything that follows (ie the history of the universe) must be understood in this context.

God did not create robots though.  He created free moral agents.  This sort of freedom is fundamentally necessary for the expression of love.  It cannot be achieved through coercion.  We can choose good, or we can reject it and choose otherwise.  God has left this choice to us.  What is good, really, though?  Jesus said that only God is good (Mark 10:18).  What did he mean by that?  I think he meant a couple of things.

First, I think he meant to subtly suggest, as he did many other times, that he was, in fact, God.  He was being addressed as good, so he pointed out that only God embodies the foundation of goodness.

Second, he meant that God alone is the foundation of all that is good.  Without God, real good and evil simply just do not exist.  We can try to base our understanding of good in ourselves, but the fact of the matter is that this sort of relativism only leaves us with no foundation at all.  It leaves us with mere opinions and confusion.  In the video embedded in this post, the fellow there says, emphatically, that “you are not a sinner!”  He goes on to say though, that he hopes you make “good” decisions and you don’t have free license to be a jerk.  Well, why not? He seems to think that there is some standard of “good” that I ought to be following.  Who’s though?  His?  On one hand these confused ideas say there is nothing wrong with me, while on the other they seem to affirm there is a certain way the universe should be, and I shouldn’t violate that.  Sounds familiar!

Sin is, simply put, the violation of this ordained state of affairs.  It’s straying from Good.  While Biblical teaching says we’re fundamentally God’s creation, it also teaches we have a selfish streak that seems to want to go it alone.  If we deny God’s goodness, we end up following the desire to be our own god by defining “good” in any way we see fit.  Allowing such a thing is, again, a necessary feature of free-will.  God would prefer for us to return to the very good state of affairs in Genesis 1, but he doesn’t do it by asking us to despise ourselves.  I’m not even quite sure how somebody calling themselves a follower of Christ would come to this conclusion, and worse, how they would teach it.

The most cited part of the Bible seems to be John 3:16.  As important are John 3:17-18.  It’s quite clear that Jesus didn’t come to condemn, but to pardon.  It seems pretty clear to me (NIV):

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

Now, the fact is that there does seem to need to be some steps taken to right our course, but does that necessitate self-hatred?  I’m not sure how you even come to that conclusion.  If it does, and Godless is suggesting that I need to right my course and come to his way of thinking, then he also must be suggesting that I ought to hate myself for my mistaken thinking because there is something wrong with me.  That’s a silly conclusion that does not follow.  People can be well-aware of things about themselves they’d like to change, without hating themselves.  People can even suggest things about other people that might need changing and have only the best of intentions.

You might be able to blame the teaching of your parents or your “Christian” community for your self-loathing, but if you want to build a case that the teaching by Jesus of Nazareth is to blame it will be quite flimsy, since he placed free grace on the table if you’d like it.  The alternative is to willing drift away from true Good.  It’s your choice.

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Secular Morality: The Euthyphro Dilemma Makes Me Barf

platoI enjoy conversing with people that don’t agree with me. At least the friendly ones. Exchanging ideas and meeting the difficult challenges to our worldview is the only way we can really have any confidence that it is a true description of reality. I recently had a conversation with a friend in which it was proposed that objective morality can still exist in a secular worldview. I was pointed to an article on “Secular Morality” as one possible explanation of how an objective moral system can be achieved without a transcendent (ie outside the material universe) source of the moral laws. It’s an interesting article, but alas, it seems to be a faith based system (ie religion) of its own, with mankind representing itself as its own diety. It’s too much to address all at once, so I want to just look at some broad parts of it in a couple separate posts. To get started, if you’re reading this, then you should read the article linked above for the context…I’ll wait.

First, the article quickly rebuts the “theist” position on morality by standing on an age old false dichotomy. The author states, “Theists usually believe that God is the author of morality…”. However, the problem is that this sort of vague assertion about “theists” or “religion” pull a lot of worldviews under one umbrella, and then condemn them universally in the same way. It turns out, though, that all “theists” do not all hold the same views on reality, and so to not address them uniquely is intellectually reckless. While a polytheistic religion based on the gods of Greek mythology, Hinduism, or even Mormonism, might suffer from the idea that gods are the “author” of morality, it would not be the case in the monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Leveling this claim against all of them in the same way you might level it against the ancient Egyptian gods, stems from a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the proposed foundation of those monotheistic religions. Loading the deck with language like “author”, implying the assumption that God commands good and that’s what makes it good, sets the stage for the challenge, first brought by Plato, known as the Euthyphro dilemma.

The Euthyphro dilemma is used to claim, as this article does, that “morality based on the absolute say-so of a supreme being seems to be no less arbitrary than the relativistic morality that theists decry.” This accusation can only be valid though, if God is understood to be the “author” of morality (ie what is known as “Divine Command Theory”). That is, in order for the Euthyphro dilemma to apply, God must choose what is to be good, and it is his “say-so” that makes it good. However, properly understood in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God does not choose what is good and just. God is neither subject to some moral law outside Himself, nor does goodness exist simply because God commands it, implying that good could have been different than it is had God commanded differently. Rather, God, being good and just by nature, exudes goodness and justice. Goodness neither exist apart from God, so that he is subject to it or so that it can exist without him, or because of God’s divine commands. Since morality is neither something God is subject to, nor is it something he creates by fiat, it seems the Euthyphro dilemma commits the logical fallacy known as the false dichotomy. It attempts to pin two options on all theists, when with some there is certainly a third option. For further clarification, please see this short explanation by philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig who can do a much better job that I can in explaining it.

So, on the view of the major monotheistic religions, since God neither creates moral law, nor is he subject to some outside moral law outside of himself, it turns out that he, in and of himself and by his very essence, is the objective basis for moral law. This being the case, it seems clear that in each of them morality is not understood to be arbitrary, being decided by God, or expressed apart from God. Moreover, it is also evident that inside of each system that, as creations of God, mankind would be obligated to submit to the intrinsic moral code that God embodies. How morality plays out in each of those religious systems (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), and which one comports the best with reality, is for a different debate though.

Thus, the atheist ought not make the mistake of lumping all “theists” into one pot and then lay accusations against the entire pot. With this challenge of the Euthyphro dilemma met then, can the aforementioned article on secular morality claim a foundation for morality in any real universal sense? That is to say, can a secular worldview with consciousness somehow grounded in neo-Darwinian evolution claim a grounding for morality that isn’t just subjective. Can moral law be something that applies to all people, in all places, at all times? I don’t think so, but I’ll try to tackle that next, addressing some of the clear problems of claiming any meaningful morality based purely on individual or societal preferences, which is all that is left when something outside of the material world is removed as an option for the foundation for morality.

To be continued…

WWHD: What Would Hitler Do?

Cheeky.  I know.  Most Christians like to operate on the WWJD premise.  However, a favorite apologist of mine, Greg Koukl, would argue that in order to know what Jesus would do in any given situation, you’d have to know what Jesus did in history.  He’s right.  It seems a lot of the time we prefer to operate on slogans and emotional appeals to make our cases, rather than doing the hard work of being students of theology or history.  I’ve decided since Jesus seems to be something of an enigma to a lot of people, including a lot of Christians, that using the motto WWHD can be a lot easier than WWJD.  It turns out most folks over the age of 20, regardless of political or religious affiliation, have a pretty good grasp of what Hitler was all about (although it seems even this significantly more recent objective history is losing traction these days).  After giving it some thought, I’ve decided Hitler can be used much more easily than Jesus to make some points.  Sometimes rather than trying to convince somebody of who they should be like, it might be easier to convince them of who they shouldn’t be like.  This seems to work best with people who generally subscribe to some sort of relativism.

I often hear people say things like, “I have my truth and you have your truth.”  However, although we may have differing perspectives, there is only one truth to be sought.  For example, Joe may say he thinks Mike is a hard worker, but Mary may say she thinks Mike is not a hard worker.  Can it be true that Mike is both a hard worker and not a hard worker?  I think not.  It may be true that Joe thinks Mike is hard worker, and it may also be true that Mary thinks Mike is not a hard worker.  These are just two opinions though, probably based on different experiences with Mike.  Saying “Joe thinks” a thing, or “Mary thinks” a thing though, is vastly different from saying “Mike is” a thing.  I can say, “Mike is a hard worker,” and there is an objective truth value to that statement that is independent of any observer.  The logical law of non-contradiction makes it an impossibility that a statement can be both true and false at the same time.  Mike is either a hard worker, or he is not a hard worker.  You may need to flesh out context and what is meant by “hard worker”, but it is impossible that, in the same context, Mike both is a hard worker and is not a hard worker.  Given an adequate definition, the objective truth of the statement “Mike is a hard worker” can be known.  Further, in the absence of objective truth values, can we say that Hitler wasn’t justified in his actions?  If multiple truths are possible, you can say it is your opinion that it was unfashionable for him to take such actions, but not that it was objectively wrong.  You may think it was wrong, but that’s just your own version of the truth.  Hitler’s truth was that he was improving the world, and his truth is every bit as valid as your truth.  This is an untennable position if you ask me.

The other day I had another friend explain that we should just say that Monday is now Saturday and go home.  He asserted this is mere social convention.  We’re just nature and nature has no need of such social constructs.  His claim, as I understood it, was that we can re-define any truth we want as we see fit by getting the majority to agree to it.  There’s actually some truth to this as it pertains to labels, but while I can certainly appreciate his disdain for Mondays, it seems to me that the “Monday” being referred to is a certain kind of thing.  Certainly we could take the thing “Monday” and call it “Saturday”, but if what we mean by “Monday” in this case is that it is the first day of the work week, then call it what you will, it is still the first day of the work week.  Calling it something different doesn’t change the truth of the matter.  I can call it “hamburger” if I want, but I still need to punch in at 8:00.  Perception may be able to be overcome by appealing to popularity, but unfortunately truth cannot.  Changing perception does not change the truth.  Just ask any magician.  Hitler changed perception by appealing to the ferocity of German nationalism.  Simply changing popular public opinion though, never did change the true fact that handicapped and Jewish folks are people, and unjustly taking people’s lives is murder.

The next time you encounter someone who argues that something is true or permissible simply because different people have different truths, or because all truth is only defined by what is most popular, just ask them to consider carefully…WWHD?

Fideism Makes Me Barf

It’s been a while.  I guess the weather has just been too nice or something.  There’s nothing like learning a new word to give me something to write.  My wife thinks these words make me sound arrogant, but I’ve read that most congresspersons have only a 10th grade vocabulary, so I’ll take the risk.  Apparently our lack of vocabulary isn’t getting us anywhere!

The word “fideism” is only interesting to me because this past week I had a couple of conversations about the role of evidence as it pertains to Christianity.  One was with a group of adults who had a lot to say over 1.5 hours about evidence and how it builds trust/faith.  It was a fun conversation.  The other was with a group of mostly Jr High kids, who seemed to meet the question with mostly blank stares.  They’re the ones that concern me the most, since this is about the age of my own kids now.  I’m concerned we’re letting our kids down, teaching them to be fideists, because that’s what we are.

The word fideism comes from the Greek word fides, which simply means “faith”.  So fideism is simply faithism.  In short, it is the idea that faith and reason are contrary to one another, and that faith is the better mechanism for arriving at real truths.  I find this absurd.  It seems clear to me that Christian faith and reason are complimentary.  In fact, Christianity in general has a long tradition of appealing to both physical and spiritual evidence.  Personally, I cringe when I hear Christians say that we just need “simple” faith.  I don’t think classical Christianity has ever been a simple faith other than the fact that aligns itself nicely with the reality we observe around us.  Doctrines of other religions (including anti-theism in my opinion) require you shut off your mind and ignore evidence in order to accept them.  Somewhere along the way after the Enlightenment, Christians got the idea that reason was at war with faith, so it was best to “just have faith”.  This certainly wasn’t true for the Jesus, the Apostles, or early church leaders.  They spent vast amounts of time reasoning with people and defending the rationality of their faith.  We should be no different.

I love evidence, and I love that Christianity, in my opinion, is reasonable and evidential.  History, archaeology, theology, science, philosophy…it can all be leveraged to support the claims of the Biblical narrative God->Man->Fall->Jesus->Resurrection = Salvation.  This gives me proper justification for my belief, rather than just having blind faith, or faith based primarily on certain feelings like LDS missionaries have encouraged me to put over external evidence rather than in combination with external evidence.  On the contrary, I think belief without evidence is foolishness!  If a person says they know something, but can’t say why they know it, I can’t see why I would believe them.  I’d guess pretty much every worldview out there can present a membership who “feel” that they’re correct.  I can no more accept that fideism is a proper epistemological theory than is the scientism professed by today’s new atheists.  Both views are deficient.  Faith needs evidence, and evidence, or rather the conclusions drawn from evidence, need faith.  Any scientist that tells me this isn’t so, must prove to me scientifically that science works!

We all have faith in something, it’s merely a matter of whose faith is more rational.  If you can’t explain to somebody why you’ve placed your faith in something, whether it is Jesus, Buddha, Allah, science, etc, then you can’t actually claim to know anything.  We must get to know God, and teach our kids to know God .  We need to renew our minds(Romans 12:2), not shut them off.  We need to be prepared to give a reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15)!  Blind belief is just fideism.  This is why kids are walking away from the Church in droves when friends and college professors present their arguments for why all religions are the same…simple fairytales to explain former gaps in science.  We’ve got to train ourselves and our kids why it is we have good reason to believe Christianity is true.  Fideism isn’t acceptable.  If you think it is, don’t be surprised if you, your kids, or your grandkids end up buying ocean front property in Arizona (or some magic golden tablets in upstate New York).  Fideism makes me barf.

The Falsifiability of Jesus

After my last post I had an extensive and enjoyable back-and-forth with a friend about conscience and the nature of morality. Many side topics came up, but in the interest of staying on track I let them slip by. I’d like to address a couple of them separately.

At one point in this exchange I made the observation that should Christianity be proved wrong today, I’d have to go looking for the real God. The reason for this is that reality, the way I seem to observe it at least, seems to entail certain objective moral laws. For instance, I don’t believe it would ever be okay to punch babies in the face for fun. Even if all of society started punching babies in the face, and declared a National Punch Babies in the Face Day, I believe at that point we’d have merely tricked ourselves into believing it was okay to punch babies for fun. The truth, however, is that it would still be objectively evil, even though nobody remained who thought of it as such. This observation of objective good and evil is one of several major evidences I employ for my own conclusion in the existence of God. Notice, however, that if moral laws exist objectively (like the laws of mathematics, physics or logic), while this may be evidence for God, it does not follow necessarily that the god would have to be God of the Bible. When I brought up the fact that if Christianity were proved wrong I’d need to find the real God, my friend took this as a weakness in my position. He concluded that because I thought Christianity could be proved wrong, that I obviously wasn’t convinced it was true. This is not the case though.

My statement on the willingness to allow for the disproving of Christianity is simply an observation about my own epistemology. You see, I can’t even prove that I exist, and I especially can’t prove that you exist. I seem to be self-aware, and I seem to be observing you (those of you that I come in contact with anyway), but I must admit that the potential exists that I am just a brain in a jar being stimulated by electrodes, similar to the Matrix or Avatar. All of reality could be an illusion and I’m just not aware of it. There is very little in life that we can prove with 100% certainty, but that doesn’t keep us from believing them, and living our lives under the impression that those less than 100% certain things are nonetheless true observations about reality. I wrote briefly about this in the past. I still have no good reason to doubt my belief in the chair I’m sitting in, nor do I have any good reason to doubt my belief that Jesus is a real historical figure, who was put to death on a Roman cross, entombed, resurrected, and appeared to many other real people from history.

I also try to be careful not to let my thinking fall into the category of confirmation bias. This is the tendency for people to support conclusions that confirm their pre-existing thinking or beliefs. Generally speaking, this is a terrible way to come to real conclusions. In practice, I believe modern Christians as much as anybody tend to fall prey to this, especially as it relates to the use of some parts of Scripture or non-essential doctrine. Often times we’re raised in a particular dogma that is difficult to let go of. In the face of overwhelming evidence, people will cling blindly to the familiar. Sometimes when people realize their brand of Churchianity doesn’t align properly with Scripture or reality after years of being subject to their own confirmation bias, rather than an actual belief, they run the opposite direction screaming rather than stopping to see if it is all wrong, or if just parts of it have been misrepresented. People really tend to be a mess, which is why if I’m going to accept a conclusion, I will come to it on my own based on the information at hand, and not exclusively based on what somebody tells me I ought to believe. Sure there are times to call expert witnesses, but in the end I want to believe true things, not necessarily popular things. In the interest of making sure I have all the evidence and framing my worldview on what I best believe represents reality, I’m willing to hear viewpoints that oppose mine as long as they are presented respectfully. Avoiding confirmation bias in drawing conclusions can only be done by allowing for these opposing views the opportunity to be presented and considered.

Finally, this leads to a method of critical evaluation known as “falsifiability.” The notion of falsifiability says that a theory or hypothesis must have the logical possibility of being disproved if it is to be taken seriously. If an idea doesn’t have the logical possibility of being proved wrong, it can’t be proved right either. I think historical Christianity fits this model well. The best historical evidence I’ve seen, including but not limited to the New Testament itself, lends incredible support for the identity of Jesus as he is known within the classical framework of Christianity. I see no reason to discount the accounts of the New Testament writers or their extra-biblical contemporaries. In fact, the historically verifiable track record of the Bible and the vast quantity of early manuscripts make it easily the most well-supported document in all of ancient antiquity. Could I be wrong? Sure, I could be wrong. It’s possible that some ancient Allen Funt will pop out of antiquity, so to speak, and say, “Smile…” Currently though, ancient history is surprisingly devoid of naysayers, even though they clearly had their opportunity. Logically speaking, the potential exists for Jesus’ supernatural identity to be at least challenged by discovery of contrary historical documents, rather than just a priori dismissal of the possibility of God incarnate.

If I’m not willing to admit that it is logically possible that Christianity could be proved wrong somehow, I don’t think it’s possible for me to say I really believe it.  It seems to me that if one claims to have good reasons for accepting something, one must also admit that should good reasons come along to not accept that thing, that those reasons would be allowed into evidence.  I could appeal exclusively to authority or emotion to make my case, but in the end that would probably just make me a victim of confirmation bias. That might be easier, but shutting off my mind is an untenable, as well us un-Biblical, option to me. Instead, I take everything I seem to believe about reality (with more than 50% certainty), like the New Testament is a historically accurate account of Jesus, the Old Testament predicts Jesus in an eerily accurate fashion (while also pre-dating the New Testament), the entire Bible seems consistent with the reality I observe, and my personal experience with following Jesus of Nazareth seems to comport with reality as the Bible explains it. All of these things have the logical potential to be disproved. Even my own personal experiences could be a figment of my imagination should it turn out I’m in the Matrix.

So, could Christianity be proved wrong? Hypothetically speaking, yes, it could. Like I told my friend though, at that point I’d have to figure out who God really is, because I believe reality screams out with the evidence of a Creator. I believe my willingness to allow for this logical possibility is a strength of my evidentially supported belief in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus, not a weakness. Would I bet on a competing hypothesis as being the best explanation of reality? No, I wouldn’t. If I believe what I believe because I believe it to be true though, then I should have no problem leaving the door unlocked for challenges from the outside. Let the Truth prevail. After 2000 years of challenges, I believe the framework of classical Christianity still best explains reality. If Keanu Reeves shows up to get me out of the Matrix though, I’ll let you know.

My Conscience Makes Me Barf

Last time I wrote I addressed the comments of Dan Savage while addressing a group of high school students at a journalism conference.  The anti-bullying icon used the opportunity to verbally bully the young theists, specifically Christians and Jews, in the audience.  More intolerance from a supposed tolerance advocate, further evidence that the myth of tolerance is one-sided.  In any case, a thoughtful commenter on my last entry essentially posed the questions to me; Do I really think I ought to be, “lustful, prideful, angry, bitter, greedy, vengeful, and jealous?;  Is society actually telling [me] to treat other people poorly, never forgive, never compromise and be promiscuous?”; Why do I need a Bible to follow my conscience?  Let’s take a look at the reality of the answers to these questions, because I think though frequently posed by atheists, these are really pretty simple questions to answer.

To the first question on whether or not I should do these morally degenerate things, the answer is obviously: no, I don’t think I should. I think most people would generally agree with this. However, what they wouldn’t agree with is what constitutes the morally degenerate behaviors.  That is where society comes in.  We must all necessarily base our concepts of these morals on something.  The question is what are we basing them on?  In the end the atheist has a problem with where their values system comes from.  In the absence of objective moral law, I can really only get my values system from myself or from my society.  Neither one of these sources is adequate, as either one excludes you from being able to tell me my morals, or my society’s morals, are wrong.  Fortunately, on my worldview at least, we’re all created in the image of the Moral Law Giver, which means that at least to some extent, we have some similar sense of right and wrong built into us so even though our belief in the foundation of morality may differ, we can agree on some major points of morality.  Extreme things like murder, rape, theft, etc will generally be accepted as morally wrong among most individuals or societies.

However, it turns out we also have free will, which means we can defy what we know is right and wrong, and re-train our consciences into believing what once was wrong is now right, or vice versa.  We don’t believe it though, because from our own perspective we’re in the right.  History is filled with examples of people and societies whose consciences accepted things which they never should have (ie European and American slave trade, Nazi Germany).  We look back and condemn these behaviors with hindsight, but what would I really have done if I was there, and let my own conscience and society be my guide?  I suspect it would be no different from now as we normalize things like marriage hopping, porn, ladder climbing greed, and revenge seeking.  Embedded in some other culture, I’d probably have come to accept that Jews or Africans are not people.  I’d retrain my conscience to believe this to be permissible.  Moreover, I’d have no reason not to conform to society.  That is, unless I had some objective standard removed from human tendency by which to measure my own conscience.

At the same times in the past that society was normalizing morally abhorrent behavior, people like William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were standing up against other people’s consciences and fighting, even dying, for what was objectively morally right.  We see now that they were correct in doing so, and that the cultures that promote slavery and genocide are wrong. You see, without some foundation, conscience becomes only a matter of popular opinion.  So yes, I do need a foundation upon which to calibrate my conscience.  That then, is why I rely on the Bible.  Why I choose the God of the Bible over other possible foundations is a longer discussion, but the short explanation is that I believe it is because it is well-supported, where other foundations are not.

I think it is actually quite apparent that people’s consciences, while useful for day-to-day guidance, cannot be fully trusted unless properly trained.  In the end, when you pose this question about conscience, the question I think the you are really asking is not why can’t I just follow MY conscience, but why can’t I just follow YOUR conscience.  You want to be the foundation of my morality.  You would prefer I give up the God of the Bible, so that you and/or society may take His place.