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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

the problem with the new atheists

Since 9/11, several atheists — most prominently Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett — have stepped up their criticism of religious beliefs. To these "New Atheists", religious moderates are as bad as religious extremists:

Here's Dawkins:

However, the moderate, sensible religious people you've cited make the world safe for the extremists by bringing up children -- sometimes even indoctrinating children -- to believe that faith trumps everything and by influencing society to respect faith.

And Harris:

However, religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others.

They are completely wrong, of course. Dawkins and Harris have absolutely no idea what religious moderates teach our kids. Questioning is an important part of learning, and faith-learning is no exception. If we have a healthy faith, we can question our own beliefs; and we'll be very skeptical of the crazy views of extremists.

Ironically, Robert Wright suggests in Foreign Policy magazine that the New Atheists are the ones inadvertently lending support to the extremists:

If you're a Midwestern American, fighting to keep Darwin in the public schools and intelligent design out, the case you make to conservative Christians is that teaching evolution won't turn their children into atheists. So the last thing you need is for the world's most famous teacher of evolution, Richard Dawkins, to be among the world's most zealously proselytizing atheists. These atmospherics only empower your enemies.

So too with foreign policy: Making "Western" synonymous with "aggressively atheist" isn't a recipe for quelling anti-Western Islamist radicalism.

Now Wright may be wrong. It may not be the case that extremists are benefitting from the campaigns of the New Atheists. But Wright does bring an important perspective to the table.

The New Atheists tend to speak in the world of abstracts, where all problems can be solved by simply not teaching kids about religion. Unfortunately, the real world has very concrete problems that require much greater cooperation among people who may not share the same viewpoints about things that cannot be objectively understood.

Living in Kansas, I have watched creationism rear its ugly head more than once in statewide politics. If religious moderates and non-religious people can't band together to put this monster down, Kansas students will be doomed to substandard education. That's a much more serious problem than trying to figure out exactly who is friendlier toward extremists.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

dawkins' god delusion revisited

A blogger named Philobyte has found my March 2007 post The God Delusion: A Source Criticism and is not impressed.

It's good that someone religious has read Dawkin's God Delusion. One would hope for some debate of facts and attitudes, but instead there is only sarcasm.

Actually, the technical term is satire, but I'll try not to quibble.

As I read The God Delusion, I was struck most by the unevenness of the book. Dawkins raised some serious issues which show the hollowness of Intelligent Design (ID), he struck some mortal blows at the philosophical "proofs" for God's existence, and he pointed to double-blind experiments on intercessory prayer that have shown it not to be effective.

Dawkins also likened religious instruction to child abuse, he alternately referred to God as an imaginary and an immoral being, and he alleged that suicide bombers take their faith more seriously than soup kitchen volunteers.

The God Delusion is a book with two separate voices competing for attention. So I thought I'd play a little game of source criticism. Philobyte was disappointed with the tack I took:

So you expect some examples of poor research, or self contradiction in the essay, you will be disappointed. The writer sets up "sources" of inspiration for Dawkins:

Erm, no, I set up "sources" who were the "actual authors" of the book. There is "H" who has most of the good arguments, and "A" who comes up with the insults. Then there is Dawkins himself, "R", who blends the writings of "H" and "A", with mixed results.

Of the two "authors", "H" has the more modest goal … to disprove the "god hypothesis", which is:

There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

"A" is antagonistic toward all possible concepts of a divine being:

I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.

Now I don't really believe The God Delusion had multiple authors; the "H" and "A" labels are simply a convenient way to sort out the book's two voices.

But for the sake of discussion, I'll drop these imaginary sources. Richard Dawkins is the one whose name is on the book; he is responsible for the ideas found therein — regardless of who might have actually penned them.

Had Dawkins stuck with the premise of debunking his god hypothesis, this would have been a devastating critique of all "proofs" of the existence of God. Dawkins knows, however, that many believers do not see their deity as a hypothesis; that they would respond simply by saying, "That's not the God I believe in," so he tries to either shoehorn them into the same mold, or dismiss them as not being sincere.

Consider Dawkins' handling of polytheistic religions:

Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate god? Who cares? … Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I shall say no more about it.

Now I'm no more a believer in Wotan than Dawkins is, but I can't see how this gesture could even begin to cover Dawkins against a charge of neglect. Does Dawkins have a clue about the meaning of the ancient myths (or modern myths, for that matter)? Does he have any familiarity with the work of Joseph Campbell, or of Carl Jung, in understanding how mythology can shape our lives? Does Dawkins show even the tiniest glimmer of understanding of the power of myth? I don't think he has ever looked at mythology beyond maybe a superficial glance.

You see, in the Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies, the gods did not create the universe. Had Dawkins wanted to relate his dismissal of mythology to the god hypothesis, he could have pointed to that fact alone, and said nothing more. But Dawkins has a higher goal in mind, that of attacking all religion. He explains in chapter eight:

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, 'sensible' religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.

Now just how mythology teaches children that unquestioning faith is a virtue, Dawkins never addresses. He just assumes that we'll take his word without questioning.

Moving on, here's Dawkins on non-theistic religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism:

Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.

This shows Dawkins' gross ignorance, not just of these religions, but of what constitutes a religion. Certainly non-theistic religions don't mesh with Dawkins' god hypothesis, but Buddhist non-theism is very different from atheism. Buddhist non-theism is more about recognizing that the ultimate answers must come from within. This is not incompatible with belief in supernatural beings which may help or hinder the individual in finding those answers. Many Buddhists pray to the Buddha or to other spiritual guides. Meanwhile, Confucian rituals such as taking shoes off when entering the home or burning money as an offering to dead ancestors can hardly be called an ethical system or a philosophy. These are religious rites, performed by religious people who are not the least bit concerned about proving a hypothesis about a creator-god.

So once again, Dawkins is not speaking in the context of the god hypothesis; if he were, these religions would be outside his scope. He's looking to his larger goal of abolishing all religion. But if Dawkins wants to be taken seriously, he needs to explain why Buddhist and Confucian prayers and rituals should be considered a philosophy and not a religion. Where should we draw the line between the one and the other? Or, failing that, Dawkins needs to explain how these religions make the world safe for fundamentalism and teach children that unquestioning faith is a virtue.

I've raised just two very basic questions in this post: What is the power of myth? and, What is the dividing line between religion and philosophy or ethics? In the more than 400 pages of The God Delusion, Dawkins doesn't even begin to address either of these. If he really wants to make the case that religion in all its manifestations is dangerous, he needs to do better than that.

I haven't even touched on Dawkins' lack of understanding of the monotheistic religions; as time allows, I'll address that in a future post.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

the beer, massage, chocolate and steak club

Joe the Peacock has an excellent post on how to actually talk to atheists. This is not the way:

Have you not heard about the beer, massage, chocolate and steak club? Well, let me tell you all about it - it doesn't matter if you don't like beer, or steak, or massages - whichever one you like, you get 24 hours a day for the rest of your life. And if you like all four or any combination of them, well... You're in luck! Because That's what the rest of your eternity will be - massages (happy ending or not, your choice), steak cooked just the way you want it, chocolate of any sort coated in any topping (or as a topping on anything you want), and any beer ever made or ever conceptualized, always on tap and never flat. And to get all of this, all you have to do is accept a unicorn into your life.

Threats don't work either:

Okay, fine, don't believe in them - you're going to end up in the Pushups For Eternity club. That's where you have to do knuckle pushups on mounds of broken glass with Rush Limbaugh sitting on your back for all eternity. All because you won't accept a unicorn into your life.

Hat tip to PamBG.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

dawkins abandons atheism?

That's the subject line (but with an exclamation point rather than a question mark) of a recent post on Peter Kirk's Gentle Wisdom blog. But is it true?

According to a story by Melanie Phillips in The Spectator, Dawkins said this in a recent debate:

A serious case could be made for a deistic God.

In her article, Phillips responds with this:

This was surely remarkable. Here was the arch-apostle of atheism, whose whole case is based on the assertion that believing in a creator of the universe is no different from believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden, saying that a serious case can be made for the idea that the universe was brought into being by some kind of purposeful force. A creator.

So has Richard Dawkins abandoned atheism? I doubt it.

In fact, Phillips got a clarification from Dawkins after the debate:

Afterwards, I asked Dawkins whether he had indeed changed his position and become more open to ideas which lay outside the scientific paradigm. He vehemently denied this and expressed horror that he might have given this impression.

So when Dawkins says, "A serious case could be made for a deistic God," what does he mean?

My best guess is that his meaning can be found in what he didn't say. First, he didn't say that a serious case has ever been made; he is only acknowledging that it could. Second, in saying that the serious case could be made only for a deistic God, he is in essence denying that a serious case could be made for a personal God.

Richard Dawkins has never been a friend of theism, and I don't see any reason to believe his statement last week represents a change of heart.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

the church of america

In a recent Townhall article, Michael Medved writes about the possibility (or impossibility) of an atheist president. (hat tip: Daylight Atheism)

Medved says:
Just as the Queen plays a formal role as head of the Church of England, the President functions as head of the “Church of America” – that informal, tolerant but profoundly important civic religion that dominates all our national holidays and historic milestones.

Medved is not merely wrong, he is very confused about his faith.

I've written previously about my concerns with civic religion. It seems to me that nothing can be more destructive of genuine religion than to let it be co-opted by those in power.

For instance, try to imagine an atheist president issuing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation. To whom would he extend thanks in the name of his grateful nation –-the Indians in Massachusetts?

Then there’s the significant matter of the Pledge of Allegiance. Would President Atheist pronounce the controversial words “under God”? If he did, he’d stand accused (rightly) of rank hypocrisy. And if he didn’t, he’d pointedly excuse himself from a daily ritual that overwhelming majorities of his fellow citizens consider meaningful.

Yes, these are the solemn duties of the head of the Church of America, according to Michael Medved. Because if the President doesn't know who to thank on Thanksgiving, or wants to revert to the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance (the words "under God" were not added until the 1950s), then the Church of America will collapse.

A non-Christian (like Joe Lieberman) could easily preside over state occasions because even though his faith differs significantly from that of the Christian majority, his obvious attachment to faith in God and Old Testament principles shows sympathy, not hostility, to the generalized value of faith.

This just underscores my objections to civic religion. There is nothing about Thanksgiving or the Pledge of Allegiance which is in any sense Christian. Patriotism is not a Christian value. Kingdoms rise and fall, and all that.

Thankfulness is good, but it is not exclusively Christian, or even religious. If an atheist president urged Americans just to be thankful, I don't see how anybody could object. After all, if Americans didn't know who to thank without explicit orders from their leaders, we'd have to call it the Cult of America.

Personally, I don't care what the President says on the fourth Thursday of November, or how he or she recites the Pledge of Allegiance. That's not the foundation of my faith -- or, for that matter, any part of my faith. Civic religion often amounts to no more than lip service -- inserting the word "God" into an otherwise secular observance or ritual. Civic religion is an insincere and shallow attempt by the state to force God into a box.

Medved considers the recent candidacies of Joe Lieberman, a Jew, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, but then adds:

There’s a difference between an atheist, however, and a Mormon or a Jew – despite the fact that the same U.S. population (about five million) claims membership in each of the three groups. For Mitt and Joe, their religious affiliation reflected their heritage and demonstrated their preference for a faith tradition differing from larger Christian denominations. But embrace of Jewish or Mormon practices doesn’t show contempt for the Protestant or Catholic faith of the majority, but affirmation of atheism does.

Medved overstates the case here, I think. Granted, Sam Harris would have trouble connecting with voters in Pascagoula, Mississippi. But not all atheists are contemptuous of people of faith.

And let's face it -- though many recent Presidents (and Congressional leaders) have been very vocal about their Christianity, most of them have not lived up to the standards they proclaimed were they were elected. From Bill Clinton's affair with an intern, to George W. Bush's deceptions leading to the invasion of Iraq, our leaders haven't demonstrated Christian values while in office.

I don't think an atheist could do much worse. Chances are, the average atheist would be better: Maybe that's what Medved is really worried about.

Modern secularism rejects the notion that human beings feel a deep-seated, unquenchable craving for making connections with Godliness, in its various definitions and manifestations. For Osama bin Laden and other jihadist preachers, Islam understands that yearning but “infidel” America does not. Our enemies insist that God plays the central role in the current war and that they affirm and defend him, while we reject and ignore him. The proper response to such assertions involves the citation of our religious traditions and commitments, and the credible argument that embrace of modernity, tolerance and democracy need not lead to godless materialism.

I think Medved does state some truth here: Osama bin Laden wants his followers to believe that Western society is godless and decadent. Medved misses the mark, though, in his claim that the proper response is "the citation of our religious traditions and commitments," especially when the only examples he can list involve secular traditions that have had the word "God" grafted in.

By replacing God with "God," civic religion maintains the appearance of godliness while emptying the words of meaning. The United States may be the most overtly religious nation in the Western world in the way we speak, but our actions tell a different story. The ever widening gap between rich and poor, the increasing number of families who can't afford needed medical care, the violence of our inner cities, the ongoing decimation of nature, all testify that this is not a nation under God. It is a nation of short-sighted, self-centered individuals who think invoking the name of "God" is enough. Osama bin Laden is not the only one who is not fooled.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

how do you decide?

In response to my recent post the role of the bible, Robert commented:

I believe the meat of [Ebonmuse's] point can be found in these two sentences:

What are the liberal believer's criteria for deciding whether a given verse reflects God's message or human error? Since they don't credit all parts of scripture with equal truth, they must have some way to decide which verses to follow and which ones to disregard.

I too am curious how a liberal believer decides which verses are divine and which are human. I often pose this question and receive a myriad of answers. What keeps it all--including the Resurrection--from being assigned to the figurative (or human-produced) category?

I think there are actually three separate issues here. As I see it, the questions are:

1) How does one determine whether a particular scripture passage is of divine or human origin?

2) How does one determine whether a passage should be followed or disregarded?

3) How does one determine whether a passage should be interpreted as literal or figurative?

These questions are not interchangeable. A passage may reflect the thoughts of its human author, may at the same time be literal, and may or may not be applicable within a given culture today. Another passage may have been received by the author directly from God, and at the same time be a parable, and again may or may not be applicable today.

Furthermore, these questions contain hidden assumptions. Question 2, in particular, is not relevant to certain types of Scripture. What would it mean, for example, to follow Psalm 139 or other psalms of praise? What would it mean to follow Micah 4 or another passage about a future peaceful kingdom? Does anyone really think the stories about Jacob in Genesis are an example to emulate? But just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, the proper response by a believer sometimes is to wrestle with the Bible text, to grapple with it to find a meaning. The follow/disregard dichotomy that the question presupposes may be appropriate for some parts of Scripture, but for others it simply doesn't make sense.

Likewise, the literal/figurative dichotomy presupposed by question 3 is not always appropriate. Sometimes a passage is both. In Galatians 4, Paul allegorizes the story of Sarah and Hagar from Genesis. This does not mean Paul believed the Genesis passage to be non-literal. He found a new meaning in the text. The author of Hebrews says in chapter 9 that the tabernacle, animal sacrifices, and objects relating to worship from Jewish Scripture are merely symbols or copies of the true heavenly worship. Again, this does not mean the author believed the tabernacle did not literally exist. Matthew allegorized passages like "The young woman will be with child" from Isaiah and "Out of Egypt I called my son" from Hosea to apply them to Jesus. In the second and third centuries, some Christians -- particularly those in Alexandria, Egypt -- allegorized nearly all of the Hebrew Scriptures to find references to Christ in every book.

This leads me back to question 1: Which parts of the Bible are of God, and which are of human origin? According to one understanding of inspiration, God uses Scripture to speak to us what we need to hear. The message may not be the same for each person. It may be a literal command or an allegorical interpretation. It may be a word of encouragement. It may simply be a word or phrase that leads to a train of thought that ends with the message God wants to reveal. So the real question is not whether a passage is of God or humans, but whether the interpretation of that passage is of God or of human origin.

And ultimately, we can't know, not in an absolute sense. We can pray, we can study, we can seek advice from others, we can meditate, we can act based on our best understanding. Ultimately, the Bible is far too complex a book to squeeze into a one-size-fits-all systematic theology.

Faith is often described as a relationship with God. Relationships are built on subjective experiences, not emperical data. Every relationship is different. That's why two believers may give different answers to these questions. And that's why I can't give a definitive answer myself.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

the role of the bible

I have a confession to make: I love reading atheist blogs. I enjoy them because they challenge my faith and make me think about why I believe what I believe. They expose the irrationalities of Christianity, and remind me that the reasons for my faith are experiential, not rational.

Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism has a pair of recent posts, Making Excuses for the Bible and Instruction Manual or Chronicle?, which offer a critique of "liberal Christians."

In Ebonmuse's classification system, there are only two types of Christians: "fundamentalists" and "liberals." Throughout this post I will put the two terms in quotation marks because most Christians self-identify as neither fundamentalists nor liberals.

The difference between the two camps, according to Ebonmuse, is this:

In the eyes of the fundamentalists, the Bible (or Qur'an or Book of Mormon or whatever other text) is God's word, dictated with infallible perfection to the minds of his followers. It's meant to be the deity's instruction manual, telling human beings everything we need to know about how to live.

For liberal believers, by contrast, the Bible is not a direct pipeline to God, but a chronicle of events put together by human beings doing their best to interpret history in the light of their beliefs. God did not speak directly to his followers and tell them what to write down - or, at best, he only did so rarely. Instead, God's followers tried to discern his will in the flow of events and infer what messages he meant to convey.

Ebonmuse notes that the criticisms of the Bible atheists use against "fundamentalists" -- e.g., immoral actions attributed to God -- don't apply to "liberals." If the Bible is understood as as "chronicle of events put together by human beings doing their best to interpret history in the light of their beliefs," there is a possibility that those human beings made some mistakes.

Still, Ebonmuse contends that there are some valid criticisms to be made against "liberal" Christianity.

First: Unless they believe that God spoke to one people exclusively - and most liberal believers don't - then they should acknowledge that their own view of scripture as a chronicle implies that other cultures will also have had contact with God, and other religious texts will reflect the same interpretive process. Why, then, would a believer define themselves exclusively in the symbols and language of one particular religion? Why call yourself a Christian if just as much genuine understanding of God can be found in the Qur'an or the Bhagavad Gita as in the Bible?

These are tough questions, and different believers may give different answers. There is a wide gap between all religions are equally valid and all religions are false except mine, and I suspect most people would find themselves somewhere in between. For myself, I will readily acknowledge that some truth can be found in other religions. I've written previously about how reading the Tao Te Ching has enhanced my faith. However, my faith is still a Christian faith. I have not converted to Taoism, and I wouldn't call myself a Taoist Christian. I still believe that Christianity is the fullest expression of the reality of God.

Ebonmuse continues:

Second: What are the liberal believer's criteria for deciding whether a given verse reflects God's message or human error? Since they don't credit all parts of scripture with equal truth, they must have some way to decide which verses to follow and which ones to disregard. In most cases this process is guided by the believer's own moral intuitions and by the moral progress society has subsequently made. Now that we know slavery, racism and sexism to be evils, modern liberal theists disregard the parts of their text that teach these things. Other verses which have better stood the test of time are assumed to be true lessons from God.

If this is true, it is surely an indictment of "liberal" Christianity. If our faith is grounded in nothing more than reading modern morals back into the Bible, then why do we need the ancient text? We might as well drop the pretense that the Bible means anything at all.

Indeed, Ebonmuse urges us to do exactly that:

However, once you've come this far, what do you need scripture for at all? Clearly, once a theist has reached this point, their own conscience is a superior and perfectly sufficient guide.

But here is the fundamental flaw of that line of reasoning: Christianity is not merely a system of ethics. If the Bible is a chronicle, it is not just a chronicle of one ancient mideastern people's grappling with their collective conscience.

The Bible does contain teachings about ethics -- I'm not denying that. But it also contains the story of God's interactions with God's people: First with a chosen people, the Jews; then through Jesus an invitation to everyone to participate in the unfolding story.

The stories of Jesus' birth, for instance, are not written as an example of good behavior that we should emulate. But what are they? Should we take them as a literal history of events of one miraculous evening long ago? Are they a romanticized tale to cover up Mary and Joseph's unexpected out-of-wedlock pregnancy? Or maybe an allegory using symbolic language to proclaim Jesus' messiahship?

I would suggest that for Christians to faithfully read the birth stories, we must not merely accept the answer that seems right to us -- whether we are "fundamentalists" or "liberals" -- but to wrestle with what God is saying to us through these stories. We might be surprised at the direction God pulls us if we move beyond the original intent -- whatever it was -- and make Jesus' story a part of our own lives.

Ebonmuse continues:

The final useful line of argument is one that works equally well against believers of all stripes. Namely, by what evidence do those believers conclude that their particular text reflects the will of God, in whole or in part? What makes them so certain that the text reflects any divine influence at all, rather than simply being the product of men, some of whom were benevolent and kind and some of whom were vindictive and cruel? Liberal believers acknowledge that the authors of scripture were wrong about many things. How do they know that those authors weren't also wrong about the existence of God?

Again, I can't speak for others. Personally, I believe God exists because of my own experience with the holy. The Bible played no part in convincing me that God is real. If I didn't believe for other reasons, I don't think I would get much out of the Bible. So why do I believe this text reflects any divine influence at all? Simply this: Jesus' story does resonate with my own story. Since that night God first became real to me, the Bible has shaped my life and transformed who I am.

Are there parts of the Bible that I believe didn't come from God? Certainly. But there are parts, too, that have shaped me even when I didn't like what they said.

I've been very brief in this post -- perhaps too brief. Each of these sets of questions deserves a much more thorough answer than I've given here. If I have time, I'll try to look at each in more depth.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

he ain't got no common sense

It's been half a year since I read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. At the time, you may recall, I was not impressed. But with a little time for marination, do Dawkins' words become any more appetizing?

Sadly (or happily, depending on your point of view), the answer appears to be no. Take, for example, Dawkins' dismissal of what he calls the "Argument from Personal Experience."

If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.

- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Dawkins devotes an entire section to various "arguments" for faith. Some of them, such as the Argument from Scripture, the Argument from Beauty the Bayesian Argument, or even classical arguments like Aquinas' Cosmological Argument or Anselm's Ontological Argument, aren't convincing even to me, so I can see why Dawkins would not be impressed. And I can understand why he might not want to just take someone's word that their personal experiences are proof of the existence of God. I wouldn't either.

Still, there's an outright arrogance in the wording of Dawkins' dismissal. "You may well find yourself believing" that your own experience was real. But Dawkins, along with those who "have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings," know better than you do about your own experience.

Twenty years ago, when I left my parents' farm to go to college, I became aware that some of our neighbors didn't think too highly of higher education. "They won't learn you nothin' at that college," offered one older farmer. "Them folks may be smart, but they ain't got no common sense."

My experience tells me that most college professors do, in fact, got common sense, but there are a few who get so wrapped up in academia that they lose touch with the real world. The author of The God Delusion -- or of the book's source -- appears to be one of the latter.

The truth, as any old farmer can tell you, is that first-hand experience is a much better teacher than any amount of book learning.

I discovered this first-hand after graduation, when I spent a month in Spain. Though I had studied Spanish for three years in high school and college, I learned more in three weeks just by being there. The "brain and its powerful workings" work even better when spurred by an external stimulus.

Another example: Many people enjoy adrenaline sports such as skydiving, bunjee jumping, or extreme ironing. If you've ever had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing that it was real. Alas, that adrenaline rush was all in your head.

And therein lies the problem in Dawkins' argument: The brain and its powerful workings can produce some incredible sensations. But if we are to take the brain's response to an experience as the experience itself, then we really don't understand what is happening. For if we can doubt the reality of religious experiences, we can surely doubt the reality of a host of other experiences. It's the same brain, producing the same chemicals in response.

But some will object: We can verify that the person actually jumped out of the plane. We can't verify a private religious experience.

And yet, not all religious experiences are private. Even in modern times, seemingly unexplainable events have been witnessed by crowds of thousands.

On July 9, 1850, a firing squad gathered in a courtyard in Tabriz in northwestern Iran to execute Siyyid Ali Muhammad, known to his followers as the Bab ("gate"). The Bab announced that he was sent as a messenger to proclaim the coming of one who would usher in a new era of justice and peace. The ruling authorities -- as authorities are wont to do -- proclaimed him a rebel and a heretic, and condemned him to death.

When the guards arrived to take the Bab before the firing squad, he told them that no earthly power could silence him before he finished the message he was sent to deliver.

The Bab and one of his followers were suspended by ropes against a wall, and were fired upon by three groups of 250 soldiers each.

Some 10,000 people were in the courtyard to witness the event, including Western diplomats. One of these diplomats, Sir Justin Shiel, wrote back to London, "When the smoke and dust cleared away after the volley, Bab was not to be seen, and the populace proclaimed that he had ascended to the skies."

All 750 soldiers had missed. The Bab's disciple was unhurt, and the Bab himself had disappeared from the courtyard. He was found soon enough: He had returned to his cell to give final instructions to one of his students. His message completed, he willingly returned with the guards to the courtyard, where he was executed.

Perhaps there was nothing miraculous about the Bab's remarkable escape. Perhaps he was just fortunate to have been missed by all 750 shots, and took advantage of the opportunity and the ensuing confusion to impart some last words of wisdom to his followers. Or perhaps the hand of God really was evident in this. Honestly, I can't say with any authority one way or the other. I don't think God's mysterious ways must be limited to my own faith tradition.

A little closer to home -- temporally, geographically, and religiously -- are the events of October 13, 1917 in Fatima, Portugal. Leading up to that day, three children had led a growing number of townsfolk to the Cova da Iria fields outside of town to witness a series of visions in which they had seen the Virgin Mary appear in the sky. These visions had occurred on the 13th day of every month beginning in May of that year. Month by month the crowds grew. In September the children were told by Mary that the following month they would see a miracle "so that all may believe."

On the promised day, October 13, some 70,000 gathered in Cova da Iria to see what would happen. Avelino de Almeida, reporter for the liberal newspaper O Seculo, described the events this way:

From the road, where the vehicles were parked and where hundreds of people who had not dared to brave the mud were congregated, one could see the immense multitude turn toward the sun, which appeared free from clouds and in its zenith. It looked like a plaque of dull silver, and it was possible to look at it without the least discomfort. It might have been an eclipse which was taking place. But at that moment a great shout went up, and one could hear the spectators nearest at hand shouting: "A miracle! A miracle!

Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bareheaded, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws---the sun "danced" according to the typical expression of the people.

After being castigated by his peers in the secular press, Almeida wrote two weeks later, "Miracle, as the people shouted? Natural phenomenon, as the experts say? For the moment, that does not concern me, I am only saying what I saw... The rest is a matter for Science and the Church."

Exactly what happened there is perhaps unknowable to us today. But something was witnessed by tens of thousands of people that afternoon.

Does Richard Dawkins have an explanation? Indeed he does:

On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun 'tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude', are harder to write off. It is not easy to explain how seventy thousand people could share the same hallucination. But it is even harder to accept that it really happened without the rest of the world, outside Fatima, seeing it too.

Dawkins' reasoning makes sense, as far as reasoning goes. But if we're going to doubt the testimony of 70,000 people who apparently saw a rare celestial dance, then surely we can doubt that half a dozen people survived a jump from an airplane because they were each carrying a backpack full of nylon.

It's one thing to be skeptical about religious experiences. It may even be wise to look for natural explanations, as some skeptics have done for both the Bab execution and the Fatima sun dance. But if someone -- even a bright guy like Richard Dawkins -- dismisses all religious experiences a priori as hallucinations, without taking the time to even consider other explanations, I'd have to agree with the old farmer: He ain't got no common sense.

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Friday, August 31, 2007

international blog day

Today is the 3rd International Blog Day (hat tip: Richard at connexions), the purpose of which is to encourage bloggers to "post recommendations of 5 new Blogs, preferably Blogs that are different from their own culture, point of view and attitude."

As was the case with the "thinking blogger" meme, I had a hard time limiting myself to five blogs. I enjoy reading different points of view, and I read more blogs than I should. In keeping with the spirit of the event, I've excluded all bloggers living in my home country.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

if you were blind, you would have no sin, part 2: a strategic retreat

I have split this post due to its length. Click here for the beginning.

Later, in the comments, Carter said this:

I've always thought atheism was mostly psychological rather than epistemological. This potential correlation only strengthens that opinion, which is why I think it is worth exploring.

Carter has it backwards. First, he is almost certainly wrong about atheism being "psychological rather than epistemological," as even a simple conversation with an atheist should reveal. But if he were right, it would weaken the correlation, not strengthen it. I have trouble with verbal communication because my brain gathers and processes information differently. The difference between the autistic brain and the neurotypical one is epistemological, not psychological. Autism is not a neurosis that can be treated with drugs or therapy.

One thing that was clear from Carter's post is that he had no understanding of autism. Not a clue. Apparently he was more interested in running with the implications of Vox Day's quote, than in doing the necessary research to write an informed post. That's unfortunate, as his bio indicates that he is a staff member of a national Christian ministry. When a prominent Christian is dishonest, it reflects poorly on all Christians.

So I emailed Joe Carter, letting him know my concerns about both the post's tone toward autistic people, and its misinformation about autism, and asking him to prayerfully consider writing a followup post to offer a public apology to people with autism.

Carter wrote a followup post, but it wasn't an apology. He called it a "clarification," although it looked more like a strategic retreat. He offered a technical redefinition of the word "correlation," using so many x's, y's, and z's that he forgot which letter represented what.

To simplify the matter, let's assign the key terms variables: x (atheism), y (autistic tendencies), z (Asperger's syndrome). Obviously, there is a strong correlation between y and z. People with AS, by definition, tend to have autistic tendencies. We could say, for the sake of argument, that for y and z, r = 1. My post implied, however, that there might be a correlation between x (atheism) and z (AS). Again, that was not my intention. The question I wanted to address was whether there was a correlation between x and y. Also, while the variables y and z are correlated, they are not interchangeable.

Got that? So atheism is related to autism but not to AS. I'm not entirely sure, but I think this may have been a clumsy attempt to suggest that atheism should be seen as a new form of autism. I could be wrong about that.

The crux of Carter's new argument, though, is:

Just as some autistic people could be "mind-blind" (as BruceA describes it), I believe it is possible for some atheists to be "God-blind."

Now to my mind, the relationship described there is a "parallel." A "correlation" is when the two phenomena are observed together, in the same individual -- as Carter suggested in his first post.

However, Carter's redefinition of "correlation" appears to be merely a face-saving maneuver, as he backpedals furiously from everything else in his original claim:

My opinion is that if this hypothesis is true (which I consider possible, though not necessarily probable) then people who are wired to be mind-blind (some autistics) and others who are wired to be "God-blind" (some atheists) may share certain tendencies that are commonly associated with or labeled as being on the "autistic spectrum." This does not mean--and I want to strongly emphasize this point--that atheists are autistic or that people with autism are more inclined to be atheists. The only thing the two groups (atheists and autistics) may possibly have in common is certain behavioral characteristics.

What are these behavioral characteristics? Carter never says, beyond suggesting that they are autistic in nature.

But here's the great irony of the matter. The reason Carter brings up the subject at all is to pose these questions:

If this is true and there is a correlation between autism and atheism, what would be the implications? Would it change the apologetic approach that Christians take in dealing with such unbelievers? Should it affect how we respond, knowing that the anti-social behavior is connected with their atheism?

And yet, even a cursory look at the comments on Carter's blog indicate that many of the atheists were turned off, not only by the allegations Carter made, but by the tone of the post, and by the leaps of logic Carter took in trying to tie atheism to autism.

And although Carter expects atheists to be offended by his post, he can't imagine why they should be:

No doubt many atheists will be offended by the suggestion that a psychological dysfunction may be correlated with their belief system. Why I don’t know, since if their belief is true, it is likely that they have no free will (being the product of purely naturalistic forces) and so can't really help it.

If Carter really thinks atheists will respond positively to that, he suffers from a greater mind-blindness than I do. If, on the other hand, he is sincere about reaching out to nonbelievers, then he does need to change his apologetic approach. One good place to start would be to stop looking for ways to blame and belittle atheists for thinking differently.

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if you were blind, you would have no sin, part 1: on autism, atheism, and mind-blindness

At his Evangelical Outpost blog, Joe Carter this week asked the question, "Are atheists autistic?" (hat tip: Henry Neufeld)

In the ensuing discussion, more than one commenter noted how demeaning the post was toward people with autism. Rather than giving an intelligent description of the characteristics associated with autism, Carter offered stereotypes and distortions.

Carter began his post by quoting one Vox Day, who said this about the condition known as Asperger Syndrome (AS):

Those with the disorder tend to be intelligent, socially awkward and difficult to converse with. They are also likely to be male.

The key phrase here, for Vox Day, is "difficult to converse with." He goes on to note:

Based on Wired Magazine's observation that atheists tend to be quarrelsome, socially challenged men, to say nothing of the unpleasant personalities of leading public atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Michel Onfray, one could reasonably hypothesize that there is likely to be a strong correlation between Asperger's and atheism.

The comparison struck a nerve in me, because, although I haven't sought a formal diagnosis, I almost certainly have Asperger Syndrome. And while the description of AS is correct to an extent, the comparison is very misleading.

Key to the alleged correlation is the phrase "difficult to converse with." Vox Day reinterprets this to mean "quarrelsome." Now it should be clear to most people that if you are saying that there is a correlation between AS and autism, and you are alleging that atheists are quarrelsome, you are also saying that autistic people are quarrelsome.

But let's consider that phrase, "difficult to converse with." The word difficult could mean quarrelsome, but in the context of Asperger Syndrome, can only refer to the difficulty the person with AS has in carrying on a two-way conversation.

Personally, I am unable to start an informal conversation. At work I can talk about work-related issues, at home I can talk about family issues. But when it comes to talking about my hobbies and interests, I am at a loss for words unless someone asks me a direct question.

Some people with AS are at opposite extreme. They can talk about their hobbies and interests for hours -- literally -- even when the listener has no interest in the subject.

A second difficulty I have in informal conversation is that I think in pictures, and have trouble translating them into words quick enough to uphold my end of a conversation. If you met me in real life, and started a conversation with me, it would probably go something like this:

You: (says something intelligent)
Me: Yeah.
You: (another brilliant remark)
Me: Uh huh.
You: (something very witty)
Me: (smiles and nods)
You: Well, talk to you later.

The only thing I've found that can partially overcome this is to anticipate what the conversation might be about, and prepare my replies ahead of time. When I am able to do this with people over an extended time, I reach a point where I begin to know them well enough to start anticipating conversations on the fly, and can communicate almost in real time, although I still stutter some.

Am I difficult to talk with? Certainly. Does this mean I am quarrelsome? Absolutely not. And therein lies the stake in the heart of Day's comparison. His alleged correlation between atheism and autism is grounded in a play on the word difficult.

Of course, as many people noted, both in the comments to Carter's post and elsewhere, the assertion that atheists are "quarrelsome, socially challenged men," has its own problems, but that is another issue for another time and place.

Despite the inadequecies of Day's alleged correlation, Carter plunges ahead:

There is a theory that individuals with autism or Asperger’s syndrome are unable to theorize about other minds. Some researchers claim that the majority of individuals with autism are "mind-blind", that they (especially as children) are unable to "attribute mental states, such as dreaming, hoping, thinking, believing and wanting in others or in oneself."

Again, this is true as far as it goes. Children with autism develop a theory of mind at a later age than neurotypical children. But virtually all people with AS have a theory of mind before reaching adulthood.

Additionally, many people with AS do have a level of "mind-blindness" -- which has little or nothing to do with a theory of mind. To draw the obvious analogy, a blind person could have an idea of, say, what an elephant might look like (even if is an erroneous idea) but would still not be able to physically see one. The relationship between physical blindness and the ability to imagine objects is the same relationship between mind-blindness and theory of mind.

Mind-blindness refers to the inability to discern what another person is thinking. Most people with autism have trouble reading others' body language and facial expressions. This makes it harder to guess what other people are thinking.

But -- and this is critical to understanding the phenomenon -- everybody experiences mind-blindness to an extent. In some cases this is good. Most of us could never imagine what goes on in the mind of a sociopath, and we wouldn't want to. More generally, to the extent that any person is enough different from us that we don't understand what makes them tick, we experience mind-blindness.

Joe Carter fails to recognize the universal pervasiveness of mind-blindness, and instead attributes it solely to people with autism:

If the belief in other minds is analogous to belief in God, then individuals who have a propensity to "mind-blindness" would likely be "God-blind" as well. With effort, high functioning autistics may be able to overcome their inability to attribute mental states to other physical beings. But while they may be able to learn to accept the rationality of other minds, they may find it more difficult to develop a belief in a Being who is both non-physical.

Carter coins the term "God-blind," and suggests that autistic people may have a propensity to it. It is important to note that Carter specifically states that the people likely to be "God-blind" are "high functioning autistics".

Now I don't know Carter's theology, but to me this sounds an awful lot like the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, in which some people are created as "objects of wrath" beyond Christ's ability to forgive. I could be wrong in drawing this inference, but I would be surprised if I'm the only one who made that connection.

(continued in part 2)

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Monday, March 26, 2007

the god delusion: a source criticism

I've recently finished reading Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, and it has made a skeptic of me. Specifically, I'm skeptical that such a poorly researched, self-contradictory book could really be the product of such a brilliant, rational mind as Richard Dawkins.

In fact, I've detected two separate sources within the text, each with its own distinct purpose and theology. (Or should that be atheology?)

The first source is opposed to what he or she calls the "God Hypothesis." For this reason, I will label this source "H". This hypothesis is stated by H to be:

There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. (p. 31)

The second source is opposed to the very idea of a deity:

I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented. (p. 36)

I will label this source "A" because he or she is opposed to *ALL* gods.

These sources were brought together sometime in the early 21st century by a redactor "R", possibly Dawkins himself, although the existence of "Richard Dawkins" is not universally accepted.

R's intent is this:

I suspect -- well, I am sure -- that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don't believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents' religion and wish they could, but just don't realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you. (p. 1)

R's task is extremely difficult: He (or possibly she, if R is not Richard Dawkins) must blend the thoughtful, tolerant, often conciliatory H source with the venomous, factually-challenged A source. R seems to recognize that most of the best material is found in H, but R's sympathies clearly lie with A. In places, as I will show later, R embeds A-like lines into H material.

To see the tension between the two sources, take a look at these two passages from chapter 3. This is in a discussion of religious scientists in history. The first quote is from H:

We have no reason to doubt Michael Faraday's sincerety as a Christian even after the time when he must have known of Darwin's work. He was a member of the Sandemanian sect, which believed (past tense because they are now virtually extinct) in a literal interpretation of the Bible, ritually washed the feet of newly inducted members and drew lots to determine God's will. Faraday became an Elder in 1860, the year after The Origin of the Species was published, and he died a Sandemanian in 1867. (p.98)

Contrast that with A's dismissal of the faith of Gregor Mendel:

Mendel, of course, was a religious man, an Augustinian monk; but that was in the nineteenth century, when becoming a monk was the easiest way for the young Mendel to pursue science. For him, it was the equivalent of a research grant. (p. 99)

This is misleading. Mendel may have come from a poor family that could not afford to send him to University, but like Faraday, Mendel took his faith seriously. He was promoted to Abbot in 1868, only two years after publishing his paper on genetics. As Abbot, he devoted less time to genetic research because his responsibilities to the monastery were a priority for him.

Unfortunately, the A source cannot give people the benefit of the doubt as H can. H, in fact, can even praise scientists who hold onto their faith:

Kenneth Miller of Brown University [is] for my money the most persuasive nemesis of 'intelligent design', not least because he is a devout Christian. I frequently recommend Miller's book, Finding Darwin's God, to religious people who write to me bamboozled by [Michael] Behe. (p. 131)

It's not just scientists who receive approval from H:

Searching for particular examples of irriducible complexity is a fundamentally unscientific way to proceed: a special case of arguing from present ignorance. It appeals to the same faulty logic as 'the God of the Gaps' strategy condemned by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge of understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. What worries thoughtful theologians such as Bonhoeffer is that gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide. (p. 125)

That last phrase, "and nowhere to hide," is R's addition to the text. It doesn't fit with the entire preceding paragraph, and stands as an example of R's attempt to harmonize the vast differences between the two sources.

A, on the other hand, cannot even imagine a "thoughtful theologian":

Similarly, we can all agree that science's entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least. But does [Stephen Jay] Gould really want to cede to religion the right to tell us what is good and what is bad? The fact that it has nothing else to human wisdom is no reason to hand religion a free licence to tell us what to do. (p. 57)

R's monumental task of weaving these two very different sources together produces, as I said, mixed results. R again struggles valiantly to reconcile the two sources as they define the nature of God.

A, after rejecting Aquinas's "first cause" proof for existence of God, adds:

Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts. (p. 77)

H, on the other hand, before discussing the problem of evil, notes:

Goodnes is no part of the definition of the God hypothesis, merely a desirable add-on. (p. 108)

H then expands on the problem of evil. But R, trying to reconcile this with A, interpolates freely. I will first quote the entire passage.

But, for a more sophisticated believer in some kind of supernatural intelligence, it is childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god -- such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament. Or, if you don't like that, invent a separate evil god, call him Satan, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Or -- a more sophisticated solution -- postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress. Or a god who is not indifferent to suffering but regards it as the price that has to be paid for free will in an orderly, lawful cosmos. Theologians can be found buying into all these rationalizations. (p. 108)

Knowing, though, that H is generally conciliatory toward religion, we can make a good guess at just which parts have been added by R. I will now quote the passage again, putting R's interpolations in {braces}.

But, for a more sophisticated believer in some kind of supernatural intelligence, it is {childishly} easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god {-- such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament}. Or, {if you don't like that, invent} a separate evil god, {call him Satan}, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Or -- a more sophisticated solution -- postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress. Or a god who is not indifferent to suffering but regards it as the price that has to be paid for free will in an orderly, lawful cosmos. {Theologians can be found buying into all these rationalizations.}

Removing these, we discover H's original text:

But, for a more sophisticated believer in some kind of supernatural intelligence, it is easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god. Or a separate evil god, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Or postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress. Or a god who is not indifferent to suffering but regards it as the price that has to be paid for free will in an orderly, lawful cosmos.

It's possible, too, that the two sentences, "Simply postulate a nasty god," and "Or postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress," are both R's interpolations. Certainly the word "postulate" has not appeared in any of the H texts that we've looked at.

Obviously, much study remains to be done in this field of Dawkins source criticism. Maybe I'll apply for a research grant.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

the problem with religious moderates

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, is not impressed with religious moderates. The problem, he alleges, is that moderates don't really believe, but just use God-talk to keep from rocking the boat:

Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word "God" as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred.

There probably do exist people who fit Harris's description, who value tolerance above all else, but they cannot accurately be called moderates. To elevate tolerance to the point that "right" and "wrong" no longer have meaning is just as extreme as the forceful intolerance of a Fred Phelps or a Jerry Falwell. If tolerance means that we can't make moral judgments at all, then we've lost all sense of balance whatsoever. Moderation, if anything, is about balance. Genuine moderation means avoiding both extremes of absolute certainty and absolute relativism.

Harris's real problem is that religious moderates don't fit into his simplistic view of human nature. He is more interested in bending reality to match his theory than in honestly seeking to understand people who are different from him. Harris bases his disdain for moderates on no less than five false assumptions.

I've already mentioned the first: He confuses "moderate" with "relativist".

Harris's second mistake is to confuse faith with gut-level certainty. Harris would prefer that religious people base their faith on their instincts. He has no use for an honest, soul-searching quest to discover God's will. He wants us all either to know -- without doubt or question -- that what we believe is true, or to dismiss the very idea of God as irrational.

In other words, by Harris's reasoning, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it," is sincere, and, "Now we see in a mirror dimly," is not. But which of these phrases can actually be found in the Bible? Harris can't have it both ways. He can't expect religious people to put their whole trust in a holy book, then ignore the nuances found in that book.

Harris's third mistake is to fail to recognize the limits of reason in making sense of the world. He would like to force every statement through the filter of cold, hard logic. You think God exists? You'll need to propose a battery of tests that we can do to eliminate any competing hypotheses.

The problem is that there are a lot of things in life that are outside the scope of logical inquiry. Consider the arts, for instance. What makes a poem work? Can we subject each line to a battery of tests to determine its veracity?

Consider the chambered nautilus.

When Richard Dawkins looks at a chambered nautilus, he observes that its eye has no lens. It's just a concave collection of light receptors. Nonetheless, it is better than no eye at all. Evolutionary biologists believe the existence of an animal with a lensless eye to be important evidence of the evolution of the eye.

When Oliver Wendell Holmes looked at a chambered nautilus, he saw a stately mansion, a source of inspiration, challenging us to aspire to greatness. Holmes, viewing the nautilus through a poetic filter, saw things a biologist might miss.

Faith, too, is a different filter for viewing the world. Faith does not follow the same rules as logic. Nor does it follow the rules of poetry, although faith can be expressed either in poetic or in logical terms.

Following from this error, Harris makes his fourth mistake, that of not recognizing that people often view the world through multiple filters simultaneously. That's why, for example, a religious moderate might have no problems with the theory of evolution, but at the same time still believe that God created everything. It is not necessary that science be wrong for faith to be right.

Finally, Harris is glibly myopic in comparing the relative progress in religion and science through the centuries:

Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is flat, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach.

First, to say that the 14th century Christian's religious ideas would be beyond reproach today is laughable. The Protestant Reformation brought into question nearly every teaching of the Catholic Church, and gave us a multitude of religious traditions in return. Few if any doctrines remain that are not disputed by one group or another.

Second, Harris cherry picks areas where scientific knowledge was lacking in the 14th century. In other areas, that 14th century Christian might still be considered well educated. The structure of logical syllogisms, for example, has remained unchanged since Aristotle wrote about them. The rules of Euclidean geometry, too, have been known since ancient times. And while it's true that Euclidean geometry is no longer considered an accurate representation of the universe, a person who understands its theorems and its rules for proof is no ignoramus.

But we can go even further. Let's look at one example of a well-educated Christian of the 14th century: William of Ockham. It so happens that Ockham is important to the history of both science and religion. He is most famous today for the rule known as Ockham's Razor: "Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity." In other words, given two equally descriptive explanations for a phenomenon, the simpler one is probably better. It is important to note that Ockham did not invent this idea, but he demonstrated its usefulness by applying it liberally.

The salient point of all this is that Ockham's razor has become one of the foundational axioms of the modern scientific method. How on earth can Sam Harris call Ockham a total ignramus?

In terms of theology, Ockham frequently clashed with the church. Some of his ideas anticipated Protestantism: his insistence, for example, that faith alone could reveal to us the nature of God. As a result of this fideism, Ockham further insisted that all logical proofs for God's existence were necessarily flawed. Ockham was not afraid to challenge even Thomas Aquinas's cosmological argument for the existence of God.

Ockham himself had his critics, and was brought before a papal court to explain himself.

So, though Sam Harris alleges that a well-educated 14th century Christian's theology is "beyond reproach" even today, the facts show that any theology -- whether the Pope's, Aquinas's, or Ockham's -- was not immune from scrutiny even in the 14th century. Since then, the Protestant reformation has led to an even greater theological diversity among Christians. Harris's allegation that religious doctrine can never be questioned is, quite simply, wrong.

Sam Harris tries to make the case against all religion, but in order to do so, he must rely on several dubious assumptions, and a few assumptions that are simply false. In the end, Harris has proved only that he does not understand the basics of religion.

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

atheist apologetics

In the comments to my last post, Albert left a link to a 1932 essay by William Floyd, titled Mistakes of Jesus. Even though I've previously stated that I'm not even convinced by Christian apologetics, Albert apparently thinks I can be swayed by atheist apologetics. But if Floyd's essay is representative -- and from what I've seen previously, it appears to be -- the atheists aren't producing convincing apologists.

Rather than attempt a point-by-point assessment of the essay, I want to look only at its underlying assumptions. Some of these are stated explicitly, and some can be inferred from the statements made in the essay. The strength -- or in this case, weakness -- of an essay lies in the assumptions it makes.

First, in the section "Scriptures Unauthentic" Floyd discusses the differences between Genesis and scientific understanding of creation, then concludes:

It follows that if one important portion of the Bible is untrustworthy, other parts of that same book may not be the infallible Word of God.

This one sentence is so riddled with errors, it's hard to know where to begin.

First, Floyd uses the same reasoning used by some inerrantists to argue for the literal truth of Genesis 1. It's no surprise than an atheist apologist would want to take the Bible literally: That makes it easier to dismiss.

Second, Floyd follows the fundamentalist error of calling the Bible the "Word of God", when the Bible itself applies that term to Christ.

Third, the trustworthiness of one part of the Bible is not relevant to that of any other part, any more than an error in any anthology should cast doubt on the rest of the anthology. The Bible was written by more than 40 authors, in three languages, over the course of hundreds, perhaps even a thousand years. It's not a single book in which one piece is representative of the whole.

Fourth, Floyd doesn't seem to recognize that the Bible was not written as a science textbook. One element of understanding the Bible is understanding the genre of the passage in question. If Genesis does not easily mesh with modern scientific theory, perhaps it is because Genesis was written for some other purpose.

In the "Documentary Evidence" section, Floyd begins:

The documents most generally accepted by Christians are those collected in the King James Version of the Bible.

The phrase "accepted by Christians" leads me to believe Floyd is talking about just the New Testament, not the Jewish Bible which is accepted by both Christians and Jews. And since the essay focuses on Jesus, the New Testament documents are the relevant ones anyway.

In the general sense Floyd's claim is true. The 27 books of the New Testament, which are accepted by all Christians as scripture, can be found in the King James Bible. In a more technical sense, it's not true: Even in 1932, it was recognized that the King James Bible was not translated from the most ancient and most reliable manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts had been rediscovered since 1800 -- and continue to be discovered -- and have helped us get a better idea of the original text of the New Testament. Still, our earliest known manuscript fragments date from the 2nd century, and the oldest (nearly) complete New Testament is a 4th century copy. But these are still more accurate texts than the source for the King James Bible.

The American Standard Bible was one of the first English translations to use the newly discovered manuscripts, and was published in 1901.

Yet even today, many atheist apologists like to use the King James translation to compile their "lists of errors".

Floyd continues:

Scholars have rejected the entire gospel of John as less reliable than the synoptic gospels; and the sixteenth chapter of Mark as an addition after the original papyrus had broken off.

Floyd makes two different types of claims in this sentence. He makes a value judgment on the reliability of the gospel of John, and a factual claim about the gospel of Mark. It's important to note the difference between these two types of claims, because they are not equivalent.

It's a fact: What had commonly been accepted for centuries as the ending of the gospel of Mark, verses 9-20 of chapter 16, are now understood to be a later addition. The reason is because those early manuscripts rediscovered within the past 200 years don't include these 12 verses. Regardless of one's beliefs or perspective, it is easy to reach the conclusion that if early manuscripts end at 16:8, and later manuscripts end at 16:20, verses 9-20 are a later addition. Furthermore, it's easy to see a motive for the addition. Mark 16:8, speaking of Mary Magdalene and the other women at Jesus's tomb, states, "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." A gospel that ends with no one being told, sounds incomplete. A later scribe may have added them, trying to tie up loose ends; we can't know for sure. But it seems, based on the available evidence, a safe bet that the gospel originally ended at 16:8.

Floyd's other claim, on the reliability of John, is not a factual statement. It is a value judgment. It may be a valid judgment to say that the fourth gospel is more "spiritual" and less "historical" than the other gospels. (On the other hand, John's gospel also contains some verified historical elements that are not found in the other gospels.) Still, to deem history "reliable" and spirituality "unreliable" is to make a much stronger value judgment. On what basis is it warranted? Floyd just assumes.

Floyd ends this section with the remarkable conclusion:

[The critic] is justified, moreover, in considering every word in the supposedly inspired gospels as equally reliable.

Again, this echoes the inerrantist assertion that "every single word" is divinely inspired. But since we've already seen that some words don't appear in the earliest manuscripts, we face the possibility that others have been added here and there, as well. Furthermore, if we look closely at the gospels, we can see that sometimes two writers describe the same event using different language. That's an indication that they have different purposes in mind. Finally, it's important to understand the gospels' purposes even to make sense of passages that appear in only one gospel. If we want to use the gospels as a reliable guide, we must understand what sort of response they are asking of us. Floyd gives no indication that he has considered this.

Next, in the obviously unbiased section, "Christianity Must Go," Floyd tries a rhetorical trick:

The significance of this investigation lies in the changes that would have to be made in religious thought if it should be found that Jesus was not perfect. If Jesus was in error concerning conditions of his own time and exhibited no knowledge of our modern problems, his authority will be lessened. Searchers after the true way of life will not continue to worship a person whose conception of the physical and spiritual world was erroneous. If Jesus made mistakes, he is neither the Son of God nor an infallible man.

Notice how Floyd squeezes in the words "and spiritual" toward the end of a paragraph that otherwise is focused on Jesus's knowledge about the physical world. But in fact, classical Christian theology states that Jesus was human in every way we are -- which would include having a limited knowledge of the physical world -- but without sin. If Jesus didn't know that there exist seeds smaller than the mustard seed, for example, that doesn't lessen his authority about spiritual matters. He might not be the final authority on agriculture, but then he never claimed to be.

Floyd then turns to the gospels themselves, and looks at Jesus's own claims about himself. In the section tited "Virgin Birth," Floyd concludes:

The dilemma is that Jesus must be condemned either for claiming identity with Jehovah (to whom he was really superior), or for accepting with only slight improvements the tyranny of God as described in the Bible, the Word of God. Of course if the Bible is not the Word of God, the whole system of Christian theology falls to the ground.

My head hurts trying to untangle the twisted logic of that paragraph. I do see, again, that Floyd takes up the fundamentalist claim that the Bible, and not Christ, is the Word of God. That simply does not accord with Christian theology.

In the next section, "The Jewish Messiah," Floyd claims:

In this as in other instances to be cited, Fundamentalists will not admit any mistake, for they believe in the supernatural events connected with the Son of God. But Modernists, who reject the anointed Christ while clinging to the human Jesus, may be at a loss to reconcile Jesus' claim to Messiahship with their rejection of his divinity.

This may indeed be a dilemma for modernists, but what does it really tell us about Jesus himself? And what does it mean for all the Christians who don't fit into either the "modernist" or the "fundamentalist" box? Floyd gives no indication that he has attempted to understand what Christians mean when we call Jesus the Son of God.

Floyd is fond of "either-or" statements that exclude all but the most extreme possibilities. In these he reveals one of his assumptions about the way the world works. He shares with fundamentalists the notion that if he can discredit the opposing theory, his will be proven correct. Here's another example:

According to the creeds based upon the Bible, Jesus rose from the dead, descended into hell, and ascended bodily into heaven. According to the gospels he stilled the storm, walked on the water and told Peter to do so and to find money in a fish's mouth and catch a large draught of fishes. These and other miracles connected Jesus with God and were part of his theology.

Every fair-minded person should re-read the gospels and refresh his memory regarding the theology of Jesus. Then a decision must be reached as to the correctness of the views expressed. Either conditions on earth were different in the first century from those of the twentieth, or Jesus was mistaken in his conception of God, heaven, hell, angels, devils and himself.

Conditions on earth were different in the first century than they are today, in many ways. Likewise, the mental framework under which first century minds operated was different from that of modern (and postmodern) people. To fully understand what the gospels meant in a particular passage, we need to understand the age in which they were written. But even if we cannot fully get into the heads of ancient writers, we may at least grasp their general meaning.

To take one example from Floyd's list, Jesus stilling the storm. Is this a poetic way of saying Jesus has a power that is greater than raw nature? Or is it a literal description of an event when Jesus changed the weather patterns? In either case, the message is the same. And if we apply it personally, the message is that Jesus can change our nature, too. If we read it as a Weather Channel report, we've missed the point.

Floyd misses the point, too, in the section titled "Labor."

The parable of the laborers [Matt. xx, 1-16.] relates that an employer hired men to work in his vineyard for twelve hours for a penny, and that he paid the same wage to other workers who toiled only nine, six, three and one hour. When those who had worked longest resented this treatment, as modern strikers would, the employer answered, apparently with Jesus' approval: "Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last."

This parable may be a comfort to autocratic employers, sustaining them in their determination to dominate labor, but the principles enunciated are lacking in social vision. Equal pay for unequal work is approved, and the employer is vindicated in regulating wages and hours as he sees fit without regard for Justice or the needs of the workers.

In the parable, the first group of workers agreed to a fair wage. The later workers actually got more than what was fair. Those who worked longer would naturally perceive this as unfair. But the point is that in the Kingdom of God, the rules are different. Everyone gets their needs met, even if they might not have done anything to deserve it. I cannot fathom how Floyd managed to so completely miss the point.

In the section titled "Religion Only For Children," Floyd almost gets it.

Nor are these sayings clear: "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes." [Matt. xi, 25.] "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein." [Mark x, 15.]

This train of thought implies that education is of no importance where belief is concerned.

Floyd makes no further comment on this subject, so it is hard to tell just what his objection is. He's correct, of course, that education is of no importance where belief is concerned. That's not to say that a believer can't or shouldn't get an education. Education might benefit us in many ways, but a high school dropout -- or a child -- can be just as faithful as a Ph.D.

William Floyd set out to judge Jesus by post-Enlightenment standards, and found that he didn't fit the proper mold. Jesus didn't fit the mold in his own time, either, and he was killed for it. What Floyd and others have found objectionable is the same thing that Pilate and Caiaphus objected to in the first century: Jesus demands that we take him on his terms, not ours. Regardless of the preconceptions we bring, Jesus expects us to leave them behind. For many people, that's not an easy thing to do.


Thursday, August 03, 2006

united states of atheism?

It is not uncommon in fundamentalist circles to hear the claim that the United States is largely an atheistic nation and that even most nominal Christians don't really believe in God. In our culture, the fundamentalists maintain, true believers are a minority.

But this idea isn't limited to fundamentalists.

Though there may have been periods in the history of the West when its "official" values roughly coincided with the central values of the Christian tradition, that time is no more. In the modern period, a yawning gap has opened. The dominant values of contemporary American life -- affluence, achievement, appearance, power, competition, consumption, individualism -- are vastly different from anything recognizably Christian. ... Modern culture functions as a rival lord in our lives, conferring values and identity and demanding obedience, all in conformity to its vision of reality. ... Jesus is a vivid challenge to our notion of reality, the "practical atheism" of much of our culture and church.

- Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision

There was a time when unbelief also appeared to be adventuresome, when the denial of God was experienced as an exciting new possibility, a heroic refusal to participate in oppressive social convention. In our day, unbelief is the socially acceptable way of living in the West. It no longer takes courage to disbelieve. As Alasdair MacIntyre has noted... we Christians have given atheists less and less in which to disbelieve! A flaccid church has robbed atheism of its earlier pretensions of adventure.

- Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens

What these mainline (Hauerwas and Willimon) and liberal (Borg) scholars have observed is one of the great paradoxes of modern liberal democracy. When the government backs off and lets people practice their faith in accordance with their own consciences, many people choose not to practice at all. Freedom of religion -- even for many who say they believe -- becomes freedom from religion.

Christian dominionists would stop this trend by blending church and state, creating a theocracy. This solution might get more people into the churches, but it wouldn't do much to change our culture (except probably to create a backlash).

On the other side of the coin, religious freedom allows ordinary people to find ways to serve God that wouldn't be possible under theocratic rule. What would the world be like if Habitat for Humanity, Ten Thousand Villages, or Bread for the World did not exist? These and countless other ministries were begun, not by official church decrees, but by lay people who saw a need that was not being met.

It is in religious practice that faith reaches its fullest expression. For some people, this practice might be expressed in acts of devotion: prayer, worship, study of Scripture. For others, it might be expressed in acts of service, whether to other church members, to the community, or in overseas missions. Either way, faith must be put into action. "For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead." (James 2:26)

Take a look at the websites for the nation's most prominent megachurches. You'll see a lot of information about how the church can serve your needs, but not much about how you can serve others through the church. Maybe these churches feel that they must appeal to visitors' self-interest in order to continue to grow, but is that really the best way to make Christian disciples?

I don't have any answers. Personally, I think Borg, Hauerwas, and Willimon are overstating the case somewhat. But I think they do have a point: American churches have not taken their role seriously to be the church. Probably we do have many "practical atheists" in the church. Perhaps the culture of the church needs to be transformed. Before Christians complain about the problems in the general culture, perhaps we should remove the log from our own eye.


Wednesday, May 31, 2006

the ebay atheist

In February of this year, self-professed atheist Hemant Mehta put himself up for auction on eBay. For every $10 in the winning bid, he would spend an hour in church and keep a journal of his experiences. (He didn't do it for the money: He donated the entire winning bid to the Secular Student Alliance.)

The winning bid, submitted by Jim Henderson of Off the Map ministries, was $504. Off the Map seeks to redefine evangelism in terms of being authentic, making genuine connections with people, and valuing them as real human beings. Henderson chose Mehta because he believes it is important for Christians to know how their words and actions are perceived by nonbelievers.

By all accounts, this partnership has been a positive experience for both. Mehta has challenged many Christians' stereotypes of atheists, while learning to appreciate some things about church. The story of Mehta's experiences can be found at Off the Map and at Mehta's own blog, Friendly Atheist.