Category Archives: “Emotional Crutch” Objection

If I’m Guilty, it’s Your Fault

Passing blame for guiltIn making a case against theism, Mackie offers a side comment that I think is worth attention–if only because so many keep making it.

That is, Mackie suggests that religions themselves create the very sense of guilt they claim to cure–and that the relief and elation they offer do not adequately compensate for this pain.

As in nearly every case, Mackie merely suggests this, making it unclear whether he’s actually claiming it (without defending the idea) or simply mentioning it in passing. It isn’t until the end of each section, when he often declares that a line of argument is completely defeated, that it becomes clear that he was actually making claims.

But others have been quite a bit more bold in making this accusation of religious traditions, if no more able to make a legitimate case for it.

Of course there are particular religious groups, sects, and leaders that have done this very thing. I don’t know of anyone who denies that guilt has been abused.

But to say that this is somehow universal strikes me as completely strange–and I’ve never seen a legitimate psychological study which supports the idea that religion in general increases feelings of guilt.

In fact, it’s pretty obvious that all thoughtful people realize that we can and should be much better than we are. It only makes sense that our belief systems will reflect this fact.

I suspect that part of the problem here is simple appeal to novelty. The common-sense idea that people aren’t as good as we should be just isn’t as exciting as conspiracy theories about evil Popes wringing their hands in glee over causing pain. But there is, I think, at least one more factor.

We happen to be living in a time where guilt is often scorned as one of the great evils. Like all eras, we make a point to remember those times and places which best illustrate our beliefs. We know all about excesses and abuses of guilt. We seem to almost studiously ignore the fact that a lack of guilt is also very dangerous.

Though it would be healthier to seek a balance here, it is much more in line with the popular narrative to demand that guilt is some unnatural thing foisted upon us by religion. But those who demand evidence before believing a thing should reject that view out of hand.


Embracing the Irrational?

Life_of_Pi-1I finally got around to watching “Life of Pi” this week.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with the statement that it was beautifully filmed. It is clearly a great picture, and deserves to be praised on those grounds.

But I completely reject the central message.

Just to get it out of the way, this isn’t because the lead character “practices” several contradictory religions. Yes, that is impossible, and promotes a certain relativism about religion that is far too popular, but I wasn’t too surprised by that.

In fact, the story really got to the core of that position.

That is, it promoted the idea that it is belief itself, not the truth of our beliefs, that matters.

This is a certain kind of fideism. That is, faith as many atheists like to define it (“belief without evidence”). While such belief can give us hope and a sense of purpose (neither of which should be underestimated), it divides our minds further into the distinct compartments of intellect and emotion.

Those that take this view of spirituality are double minded. On the one side, he believes, but on the other, he knows he has no rational reason for that belief. On this schema, which side is dominant is the only difference between the passionate believer and the passionate atheist. Both are deeply committed to half of themselves, and one is suspicious that the impatience each has with any who disagree is something more than impatience.

Rather, this type seems always to be arguing with the half of himself that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

Any philosophy worth living needs to be more holistic than that. It needs to to be both grounded in reason and speak to the real issues of life. It needs to reunite the warring factions of the mind.

And that brings me to my definition of “faith”: the coming to personally accept and live out the logical consequences of what one claims intellectually.

Whether one calls this practice “faith” or not, this is the approach we need. Neither bold fideism nor demanding evidence while living relativism is a path to what Jung called individuation. It is a path from, rather than toward, enlightenment.

Tough Guys from Quiet Suburbia

-Pretty-Fly-For-a-White-Guy-the-offspringBertrand Russell, I think, almost perfectly enshrines the rallying cry behind the New Atheism:

We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world — its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.

This is what would today be called a “shout out”. It is a rhetorical appeal to the hubris of his listeners–declaring that embracing atheism is a badge of intellectual, moral, and emotional strength.

And this is why the idea will never spread beyond those who live comfortable lives.

Christianity is not a message for the elite, for those who consider themselves as essentially good and in control of their lives. It is a message for those who have suffered enough to know that human frailties aren’t simply going to go away when we commit ourselves to science and make some inspirational speeches. A savior, after all, is of no use to those who think themselves too good to need saving.

No one, perhaps, saw this more clearly than Nietzsche, who called Christianity “a slave revolt in morality”. He hated Christ’s regard for the weak and impoverished, and felt the strong should take control to run the world correctly. But even the spoiled child from a safe neighborhood can grab for control and refuse to believe that his elders have any wisdom to give.

But Christ, when confronted with revolutionaries who were ready to overthrow Roman power (or die trying), simply spoke until they were too weak from hunger to make the trip home. He brought them to see their own weakness before offering them salvation in the form of bread.

And this, I think, is the real value of science to Russell and his intended listeners. It gives them physical bread, which makes them feel strong enough to avoid this lesson of Christ’s.

Missing a Target as Big as God

ignorance3After (erroneously) insisting that science vindicates atheism, Bertrand Russell goes on to rally his troops for a strike against a strange vision of Christian despotism:

Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.

This is the sort of statement that could easily have been lifted from a communist propaganda pamphlet. There is a form of science-worship going on here, where technology will save us from all the problems of the world. At this point in history, it shouldn’t be necessary to argue that it is human nature, and not belief in God, that is the source of these problems.

But, apparently it is necessary. And that so many are eager to ignore lessons which cost more than a hundred million lives is, at best, deeply tragic.

This is at least partially because neither Russell nor the New Atheists can envision God as anything more than an “ally in the sky”. They seem oblivious to the fact that the entire concept of classical theism, of transcendence, or the metaphysical concept of pure actuality are completely beyond their objections. Consequently, they seem to think that they need only argue that there is no bearded man floating through the physical cosmos in order to refute Christianity.

That is roughly on par with claiming that all one needs to do to disprove atheism is to show that a kindergartener’s understanding of Richard Dawkins is silly.

We can’t find test for God’s presence with science any more than Hamlet can find Shakespeare by looking into a telescope. Simply demanding that naturalism is true, and therefore all propositions (including God) can be investigated with science, is simply arrogant dogmatism.

This should be obvious to anyone willing to listen to theologians, but Dawkins and others have spilled a fair amount of ink arguing that they don’t need to understand theology in order to reject belief in (what they think of as) God.

And the white-knuckled grip that many from this group keep on their own ignorance can’t be called anything other than prejudice.

Rhetoric First, Reason if Time Permits

witch_hunt_accusation_crucible_jpgIn the following passage of “Why I’m not a Christian”, Bertrand Russell provides what may be the most sweeping and speculative generalization he makes. It is hard to see how anyone who has had a religious experience could fail to see the problem with this:

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.

This is a beautiful rhetorical flourish to place near the climax of his speech. However, it is also false, judgmental, and irrelevant.

It is clear enough that it is false. I’ll not spend time on that. But I will say that anyone who is willing to make such grandiose declarations as this, without any real support at all, has no right to cast his side as the supporters of scientific and rational thought (as Russell does). Indeed, many of the New Atheists seem to have trouble understanding the difference between wild accusations and scientifically gathered data.

Such a harshly judgmental attitude based largely or wholly on ignorance is commonly called prejudice. And there seems to me to be something about this subject which causes people to speak boldly (and prejudicially) outside their areas of expertise. Richard Dawkins can often be found giving us amateur philosophy when he should be giving us professional science. It it strange, then, that Russell here gives us amateur psychology instead of professional philosophy.

And, most significantly, his claim is completely irrelevant to the question of God’s existence. Even if it were true that all spiritual experience is simply a fear reaction (though it isn’t remotely), this is not a logical reason to believe that God does not exist. It does nothing at all to establish that one shouldn’t be a Christian.

Russell XIV: Bats Don’t Believe in Rainbows

rainbowIn addition to indoctrination, Russell offers one more reason why people might believe in God:

Then I think that the next most powerful reason is the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you. That plays a very profound part in influencing people’s desire for a belief in God.

I’ll skip over the inherent jugmentalism in this. I can’t, however, resist pointing out Russell’s lack of understanding of the subject of God. In telling religious people what we find attractive about our own belief, he is completely blind to such issues as spiritual experience, mortality, and the meaning of life.

In fact, Russell (like the New Atheists) never touches on any of most common reasons theists say they believe, even to disagree with those reasons. This strikes one as less like a rebuttal than a simple failure to address the topic.

If the most obvious problem with the New Atheists is their inability to present scientific data, the second (and more significant) issue is their inability to understand which questions Christianity is meant to answer. Listening to the New Atheists speak on religion, in fact, sounds more like how one might imagine a bat would describe a rainbow than anything like a real engagement with the concept of the divine.

It’s no wonder, then, that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in the God he argues against. I don’t believe in that God either, and I don’t know anyone who does.