Category Archives: Misunderstanding Theology

Maintain the Ignorance

ignorance-is-bliss-1-quarterThe Religious Education Council for England and Wales has claimed that all children should be educated in the subject of world religion. The counsel wants to start even the youngest students in a curriculum on the subject, and (if the informal poll is to be trusted) most are opposed to the idea.

Personally, I’ve never considered the idea of teaching world religion to primary students, but I’ve long since been bothered by the fact that one can graduate high school with no more than cartoonish stereotypes as one’s knowledge of world religion.

Nearly any time I’ve raised the issue, strong opposition isn’t far behind. The most common response is the idea that a world religion class would simply be a devotional class in disguise.

And this, to be honest, mostly reveals a certain ignorance as to what religion and religious education actually are. Really, this is a little like saying that history shouldn’t be taught in schools because it would be imperialist propaganda in disguise. It is highly questionable, at best, that students learning about all the world religions will be more likely to uncritically accept the most familiar of them. From my experience, it’s far more likely that “exotic” religions will be embraced through these classes. 

But this all misses the point. The potential for problems is not a reason to stifle education. Indeed, this is one of the chief complaints that secularists have with religious fundamentalists: seeking to prevent children from being exposed to opposing ideas. Any platform preaching that it is best to keep young people ignorant is, in my view, on a slippery slope to some rather dark places.

It always surprises me, how indifferent is the reaction to the idea that we’re not educating young people in the beliefs of 90% of the world–as if one can have a robust understanding of history, art, politics, and sociology while remaining completely ignorant  of the beliefs that so often shape those subjects.

I think part of the problem is that many people find it hard to seriously entertain the idea that anyone could possibly want a religious education class for a reason other than to proselytize to students. It simply doesn’t matter how, or how often, you say “knowing something about the beliefs of other people is part of being an educated person”, what too many people hear is “I’m going to try to brainwash your child.”

And this is unfortunate, because it is precisely those who don’t want children to learn who are, however unwittingly, brainwashing children. I’ve run across many young people who are so immersed in white, western, post-enlightenment culture that they have a hard time fathoming that there are other ways of thinking and doing things. Whether or not one, at the end of the day, agrees with those alternatives, it seems undeniable that it is better to reject them out of knowledge, rather than ignorance.

When I was a child, I struggled desperately with the questions addressed by the major religions of the world. Though I couldn’t have expressed it then, I was deeply frustrated and hurt by the unwritten rule that we simply do not talk about life’s most important questions in a place that is supposed to be teaching me to think and ask questions. An atheist, I suspect, may even argue that I am a Christian precisely because, as I quickly learned, the Church was the only place available to me willing to have that conversation.

On occasion, one encounters an idea that, the more one thinks about it, the less sense it makes. This has been my experience with opposition to religious education.

It seems to be connected to the foggy idea that it is somehow acceptable to drift through life without ever seriously considering the most important questions as more than matters of personal opinion–or ever looking into what great thinkers of the past have had to say on the subject. 

Here, one begins to suspect that it is not ultimately fear that one particular religion (presumably Christianity) will be favored in such classes. It seems that it just might have more to do with a certain fundamentalism. A fear that one’s own views will be dismissed by a generation that is better educated than one’s self.

Whether this is true or not, it is hard to see how this is all that different from insular religious groups sheltering their children from outside ideas–something opponents of religious education claim to decry.


The Power of Education

15585Hulk_school_poster_1_Continuing on with Chris Hallquist’s criticism of William Lane Craig, we get to a section on the increasingly well-known Ontological Argument. This is an argument which attempts to show that, once one understands the concept of God, one will see that God must necessarily exist.

I should say right away that I’ve never been persuaded by this argument. Still, I think that some of the objections to it simply miss the point. For instance, Hallquist claims that the argument could equally be used to argue for the existence of a perfect demon, something like God, but perfectly evil. But this is simply untrue.

What the Ontological Argument does show, in my view, is that God’s existence is either impossible or his non-existence is impossible. Hallquist points out that the key issue is that God is defined as necessary (his non-existence is impossible), and claims that all the other properties of God are irrelevant to the argument.

This is simply because he doesn’t seem to understand the argument. He complains that it contains “unnecessary jargon”, but those terms (such as “maximal greatness”) are precisely the key to understanding why goodness and necessity are linked. That is, they are the answer to his objection.

I’ve run across this situation many times in debate. There’s a particular type that likes to complain “I don’t want to understand all those long words, just give me a reason to think you’re right”. It never seems to occur to that person that “those long words” are the explanation.

But this is odd to hear out of Hallquist, because he goes on to show quite a bit of understanding, pointing out the differences between ontological and epistemic possibility, and discussing modal logic with clarity.

To put it simply, Hallquist agrees with the idea that, if God’s existence is possible, then God exists. He simply (and rightly) underlines that “possible” means absolute (ontological) possibility, and not a “for-all-we-know” (epistemological) possibility.

And, personally, I agree with him here. I think this is a good point that is often missed.

This is, incidentally, where those who dismiss philosophy would do well to learn something about it. Because Hallquist understands these terms, he can offer an intelligent response, rather than resorting to mockery and name-calling.

Still, he should study a bit further. He claims that God’s existence being conceivable doesn’t help to show it possible because “we can conceive of a world consisting of wholly physical objects”. Here, he’s clearly taking “conceive” to be synonymous with “imagine”. But this is not the way philosophers use the term.

To say that something is conceivable is to say that it is logically coherent. One cannot simply respond by saying that materialism is logically coherent, because the argument is, itself, an argument for the incoherence of materialism. One can’t simply assume that the argument fails to show this in order to “prove” that it fails.

As above, I’m not convinced of the Ontological Argument. I can see why people believe that the idea that God’s existence is possible is more likely true than not. But I think J. L. Mackie has raised some good challenges. In the end, I don’t claim to know whether it is sound.

What I can say with more certainty, however, is that Hallquist has not offered much in the way of good reason to reject the argument. And I doubt he would have used the objections he did had he properly understood the terms of the discussion.


What Atheists Get Wrong About Atheism

Wrong-Answer-on-JeopardyCNN put up an opinion blog this week entitled “What Oprah Gets Wrong About Atheism”. It had good points, but, ultimately, it’s fairly easy to show why its position is poorly thought out. Let me run through the basic points the article makes:

1. Atheists experience awe and wonder

This is true, and the writer is right to disagree with Oprah when she says that, if you experience these things, you aren’t an atheist. However, there are at least three points being missed here.

First, to a materialist-atheist (which is all but a tiny minority of atheists), an experience of awe and wonder is purely subjective. They may feel it, but in no sense do they believe that there is anything intrinsic about the universe that actually deserves our awe.

And this is an important difference. The atheist who acts on those emotions (such as, say, by protecting the environment) is acting on emotion, not reason. The theist does not need to check his reason at the social activist door. And for those who believe that our beliefs and actions should be based on reason, this is a crucial point.

Second is the glossing over what Oprah got right: God is “not a bearded guy in the sky”. Yes, God is something much more real than the vague sense of wonder Oprah was discussing. But if it is fair to point out that she’s wrong, then it’s equally fair to point out that celebrity atheists (Dawkins, Krauss, et al) are at least as wrong as she is.

And being that wrong about theism means that they are getting something horribly wrong about atheism. It is, most emphatically, not simply a lack of belief in a bearded man in the sky–as they suggest at nearly every turn.

As for the third point, I’ll get to that below.

2. Atheists’ reputation will improve as atheists come ‘out of the closet’

As before, I largely agree with this. I think many people will have a better opinion of atheists as they get to know others who are openly atheists.

However, at least part of the blame for the fact that most see atheists as (quoting the article here): “negative,” “selfish,” “nihilistic” and “closed-minded” can be laid at the feet of atheists themselves.

Not all atheists, of course, but the stridency of the New Atheist movement has done a great deal to convince people that atheists are bitter and close minded. This group tends to rant and take offense, displays a marked indifference to nihilism, and rarely shows any amount of compassion toward those who disagree with them. Much less often do they show even the slightest doubt that they are completely correct.

As unfair as it is to tar all atheists with the same brush, it really isn’t surprising that they’ve picked up this reputation. If atheists don’t want to be thought of as mean-spirited and close-minded, I suggest a sustained house-cleaning project targeting the extremely vocal mean-spirited and close-minded atheists. Personally, I think a “Will the real Richard Dawkins Please Shut Up” campaign would be great PR for atheists.

3. Atheists should emphasize more than the “no” of atheism and talk about secular humanism

Personally, I’d find that refreshing. Any time I’ve attempted to debate with an atheist, it’s only ever been the “no” that they want to talk about. They don’t want to discuss their materialist presuppositions. They don’t even want to claim that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it’s been emphasized, over and over, that they simply lack belief in God and make no other claims than that.

So, if the atheist wants to start talking about secular humanism, that’s great. But I do expect him/her to defend the “secular” part of that. Is it rational to be a humanist without a belief in transcendence? Is it really necessary to be secular to be a humanist? What value judgments can we realistically make without non-material information?

These are hard questions. I won’t attempt to answer them here. But it is clear, to anyone who knows the subject that the “atheists only accept things based on evidence” line of attack will have to go before secular humanism can become a major focus. (And good riddance to it, it was never true in the first place.)

4. Atheists can be spiritual, too

This is the skipped point from the first section, and the only place where I simply, flatly, disagree.

Atheists can certainly have subjective experiences of awe and wonder that leave them with the feeling that life is meaningful. But spirituality requires some version of a belief in spirit, which is precisely what the atheist denies.

To put it directly: when religious people talk of spirituality, they do not mean a personal subjective feeling. They mean a factual connection with a real, external truth of reality that is beyond the physical. The atheist is free to say that its all illusion, but its disingenuous to then say that one is also spiritual. From the atheist’s perspective, no one is spiritual, because there is no spirit.

The article rightly complains about calling things like justice “God”, but it makes no more sense to call things like awe “spirituality”.

What I think we’re seeing here is the fact that all human beings long to be spiritual–no matter what words we use to describe it, we all want to feel connected to a higher and more profound reality than the physical facts of the world around us. Each of us is free to believe that this is possible, or that, sadly, it is not.

But one cannot have the cake of denying that any higher reality exists, then eat the spiritual manna of believing that there is any ultimate meaning in life.

This dissonance, written of at least since Nietzsche, isn’t a problem that atheists can simply ignore.


Let’s be Honest Here

lincolnSmalley, in his “Top Ten Reasons Why I’m an Athiest”, gives us a bonus reason:

11. I simply refuse to be a hypocritical, disingenuous Christian. I could go through the motions, attend the churches, shake the hands, follow the rituals of whichever religion or denomination of Christianity I liked the best, sing the songs, and help with the luncheons. That still wouldn’t make me a believer. It would make me a pretender. I am honest with myself and those around me that these things don’t make sense to me. That doesn’t make me a bad person. It makes me an atheist.

I don’t begrudge anyone the desire to live as they see fit. But the key point here seems not to be a reason to be an atheist at all. Rather, it is simply the statement that he wants to be honest about being an atheist.

I’m very much in favor of honesty, but I think that we should also emphasize the importance of being honest with ourselves.

I don’t know Smalley, personally. Perhaps no one was there to point out his misunderstandings of Christianity to him before he wrote his list. Perhaps he’s all but forgotten it. But anyone who actively thinks that this list offers good reason to reject Christianity, let alone all theism, is very naive. It is based on a terrible misunderstanding of Christian beliefs, and attacks strawmen.

So, no. Being an atheist doesn’t make one a bad person. But attacking horrible distortions of an idea in order to justify rejecting it does make one either ignorant or dishonest. I suspect that it is nearly always the former. And, while that is the less repugnant of the two, it is hardly commendable.

While it is good to be open about one’s atheism, a deeper honesty will offer better reasons for one’s position than this list does. The intellectually honest person will either reject Smalley’s list as a horrible distortion of Christianity, or admit to ignorance about what it actually teaches.

What one cannot do is genuinely study theology while accepting these reasons as valid.


Judging the Judge

86543000-325x222From Smalley’s “Top Ten Reasons Why I’m an Athiest”:

10. Only for the sake of argument, if I were to astonishingly find myself face to face with a supreme being, I would expect to be judged on my life as a humanist, and how I treated others, (just as most Christians plan to be judged on character, not on the actual Ten Commandments). If my positive actions were ignored, and I was instead judged on using my intelligence to doubt religious doctrines created by human sinners, I would rather be eternally punished than bow to such an unfair tyrant who made things seemingly impossible for humans to succeed at this horrific game.

Right away, it should be noted that this argument comes down to “I don’t want Christianity to be true”, not “here’s a reason to think that it isn’t true”. Much less is it a reason to reject all forms of theism.

But I’ll agree with Smalley that an unfair form of judgment would be a problem for Christianity. This, therefore, would seem a comfort to the atheist: Either one will be judged on one’s character, or one can claim the moral right in the situation.

Or, rather, it would be a comfort if it were true.

None of us can claim moral perfection. None of us can claim the right to enter heaven. Even if God said “I’m only going to judge you based on what you, in your life, have told people about how they ought to live”, none of us can rightly claim to live up to that standard. Much less can we live up to any standard befitting a perfect being like God.

Really, what Smalley appears to be saying is that he deserves to go to heaven, and that the only question here is whether or not God realizes this.

But this is, like most of the items on his list, born out of a deep misunderstanding of what Christianity actually teaches. No one is going to be judged by their professed beliefs. People will be judged by our hearts and minds–how good we really are.

Those of us who realize that we aren’t nearly so good as we know we should be start to get nervous at this point, and the idea of forgiveness starts to look very interesting. But Smalley is saying that he doesn’t need forgiveness. It’s no wonder that he isn’t interested in learning about Christianity; he insists that its main concept is of no use to him.

Yes, that is obviously false. And this means that anyone who takes this approach has no right to say that it is intelligence, rather than ignorance, which is the basis of his rejection of Christianity.

Christianity teaches that we can all enter God’s presence, so long as we’re honest enough with ourselves to admit that we are moral failures and seek God’s forgiveness. It is self-righteousness, not intellectual questioning, that is the path to hell.


Leaving out the Best Option

spark-by-insync-social-science-being-left-out-is-bad-for-your-health-post

Getting near the end of Smalley’s “Top Ten Reasons Why I’m an Atheist”, we have this:

9. It is better to find your own answers and make an educated decision, than to intentionally remain uneducated and make a fearful one.

The most striking thing about this thought is how well the second option describes the bulk of the New Atheists. This is not to say that theists are never guilty of this. I completely agree with the idea that this criticism needs to be made of many religious groups, and probably all of us individually, from time to time.

Still, the fact that theists have behaved this way is no excuse for the New Atheists to do the same. They’ve directly advocated ignorance of theism, claiming that they need not read “fairyology” and other such memes. Apparently, they know that religious teaching is false, so they don’t have to bother learning what it actually teaches. The more important thing, on this view, is that one loudly proclaim the evils and horrors of religion.

This certainly seems like intentional ignorance and fear-based decision-making.

My second issue with Smalley’s statement is this: For as saturated as modern people are in the glory of individual philosophies, this is clearly a false dichotomy.

I’m aware that Disney, and everything else we watched when we were kids, told us that finding “our own answers” is the mark of enlightenment, but I find myself more than a little skeptical of the idea. The great minds of the past, and the wise people one knows, have many good things to say. Looking to them for help is far more profitable than fumbling in the dark as a lone-wolf philosopher.

It might be argued that Smalley wasn’t ruling that out. Yes, I’ve seen little to no effort on the part of the New Atheists to actually learn from past thinkers, rather than mock them. But one needn’t be a New Atheist to be an atheist.

The only problem here is that this is a New Atheist argument. Anyone who agrees that there is good wisdom to be found in past thinkers, even if she remains an atheist, has completely abandoned the false dichotomy Smalley presents here.

And that is the end of it. This argument only works if one is willing to claim that all religious people, everywhere, remain intentionally uneducated and base their choice on fear. So long as it is even possible for someone to take a third path–looking to religion as a source of inspiration and guidance, while learning in general–then this is no reason to be an atheist.


“Shoot the Messenger” in Reverse

e7d6shoot_the_messengerAs we’ve already seen, many of the attacks on Christian theology are centered around terrible understandings of what it is that Christians actually believe. And none of them justify atheism.

In his “Top Ten Reasons Why I’m an Athiest”, Smalley continues to make these mistakes:

6. If the Christian god[sic] created humans as sinners, how could it rightfully expect us to believe the corrupt messengers it[sic] has sent to teach us the way of life?

On the one hand, I don’t doubt Smalley’s sincerity. On the other, it is very hard for me to imagine how he could have made even a half-hearted attempt to find the answer to this question without finding it. This seems more like something that occurred to him as he was writing, rather than something he’s actually asked of a person educated on the subject.

Most obviously is the fact that I don’t know what believer in God actually claims that humans were created as sinners. Rather, God created humans with the choice to sin or not. But, as far as who is to “teach us the way of life”, Smalley doesn’t even consider the idea that a Christian might think that Jesus Christ and God’s spirit would help with that. He can argue that such things don’t exist, but this isn’t a reason to disbelieve in them.

Yes, Christians are often corrupt, immature, and hypocritical. But the personal life of a corrupt scientist, counselor, philosopher, or inspirational speaker doesn’t keep people from realizing it when their words are correct, even if their actions don’t fit with them.

Jesus himself spent quite a lot of time criticizing the religious leaders of his day. He instructed his followers to do just as the Pharisees said, but not as they did. This is necessary advice in any generation.

So, again, we see why someone ought to understand a topic before presuming to pronounce wholesale judgment on it.

But many do seem to have trouble differentiating between “I don’t like how you’re living” and “Your claim is false”. This is why so many have listed bad things done by Christians as if that were evidence that God doesn’t exist.

But Smalley isn’t exactly doing this. Rather, he seems to be blaming God for the fact that people often commit this logical fallacy. Somehow, he thinks it is God’s fault if people don’t realize that a statement isn’t untrue simply because the speaker isn’t perfect.

Personally, I find “God doesn’t exist because people reject him for irrational reasons” a little hard to swallow.

But, if this is a terrible objection to theism, the next is much better. I’ll get to that soon.


“I Don’t Need to Study Theology” In Action

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In the previous post on the “Top Ten Reasons Why I’m an Athiest”, Smalley seemed to imply that he’d read a lot of theology. He does so again here, but clearly betrays a lack of reading with the same words:

5. In the technicalities of most religions, there is no difference between a believer that dies before having time to repent, and a nonbeliever that rejected the doctrine altogether.

I can’t claim with certainty which particular religions Smalley has in mind, of course. But, depending on this, his claim is either irrelevant or false.

It’s irrelevant if by “most” he’s referring to the vast numbers of dead shamanistic, pagan, and spirit-worship religions. Repentance is little to no value at all in these belief systems. So, while it is technically true that there is no difference, it completely misses the point.

Rather, I suspect that by “most religions” Smalley means “Christianity”. If so, his statement is false. There is a small minority of Christians, no doubt, who would agree with this. But, if we’re talking about anyone who knows more than what he picked up while nodding off in Sunday school, then this is simply incorrect. Saving grace is a basic state of one’s personal choice to be with God, not a contract re-issued every time one repents of particular sins.

Nor, if they are what he had in mind, does Smalley’s argument apply to Judaism or Islam.

Whether or not one believes in Christianity (or any other religion), the point is that a misunderstanding of it does not count as a valid reason to be an atheist. Nor would it anyway. Even if this were an accurate account of Christian belief (though it isn’t), it does absolutely nothing to show that Christianity is false, it would merely show it to be unpleasant. This reduces to another “theism is false because I personally don’t like this part of it” objection. None of this, even in the imaginary universe where these statements are true, undermines the arguments for God’s existence.

In this way, Smalley’s comment is like quite a few things I hear out of passionate opponents of religion. Many have offered me a heartfelt critique of a sophomoric understanding of the Bible as if that closed the case on all forms of theism–once and for all. Dawkins himself has done this even while complaining that some of his critics haven’t read his book.

Really, these types of arguments are no more than personal complaints about a distortion of Christianity. But we hardly need to be atheists to realize that misunderstanding a religion will often lead one to dislike it.