Category Archives: Theology

“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.

The Wrong Target

wm-Wrong TargetDavid Smalley, atheist blogger of “The Dogma Debate” has put up a list of the top ten reasons why he is an atheist (though there are actually eleven reasons listed). While these are of varied quality, It struck me as intelligent enough to warrant a response.

As such, I’ll start with the first:

“1. If we truly had one creator speaking to prophets, it would do so consistently, not contradictory as thousands of different religions have proven.”

This is the classic argument from many beliefs, and is an important question for people to ask, though it is hardly a reason to embrace atheism. In fact, this statement assumes that one creator founded different religions. That is to say, it is an argument against Unitarianism (and not a very good one, even then); it says nothing about religions which don’t claim that God founded every religion.

Really, that anyone would think that this is a good reason to accept atheism as true strikes me as very strange.

But, let’s help Smalley out a bit. Let’s change this to “God would have made sure that all religions were correct, and therefore the same as one another”. That would apply to Christianity.

Or, rather, it would apply to Christianity if there were any good reason to think it was true. The idea that God allows us our free will, and allows us to believe what we choose, has always been a key part of Christian belief. So, a version of God that would prevent people from believing other things wouldn’t be the free will respecting God of Christianity.

Thus, this argument doesn’t work, either.

The fundamental mistake here is assuming that different people won’t see things differently. Any experience with life will tell us that this happens in all areas; to insist that religion should be the one exception to this is to insist that humanity shouldn’t be a factor in religion. When it is connecting humanity to God that is the purpose of religion, this seems dubious at best.

But, if history is any indicator, someone will object in the comments section that this is no reason to select a particular religion out as true. This is true, but only by being beside the point. There are far too many answers to that tangent to list them here, but the main point is that wouldn’t defend atheism. For now, Smalley’s objection was based in the idea that theism inherently contradicts the existence of multiple religions, and this is an idea that no one has been able to support, let alone justify.

Aiming at the Wrong Target

cosGodI’ve never actually been given evidence that materialism is correct. But I like to think that, if I were, my reaction wouldn’t be to complain that the person offering the evidence didn’t simultaneously disprove every non-theistic life philosophy that I could name.

This may be, however, the most common response I get when offering support for my own position. Certainly, it is the New Atheists’ modus operandi. There seems to be a certain type that, upon hearing an argument for God’s existence, can’t resist naming off every god that comes to mind and proclaiming that there is “just as much” evidence for them.

I have to admit that I can’t understand this except in terms of rhetoric and slogan-style debating. The number of times that Quetzalcoatl’s name is mentioned (as if this were a serious point) stands as evidence that there are many out there who have no idea that the First Cause argument does absolutely nothing to support his existence.

Likewise, there isn’t the slightest thing that moral arguments for God’s existence does to support Zeus, Osiris, or Moloch. Nor have I seen anything about the fine-tuning argument which lends any credibility to the existence of Isis, Marduk, or Thor.

What’s going on here? To ask the question is to answer it. Those who delight in throwing out names of nearly forgotten deities as if that were somehow an argument against monotheism are almost always more interested in scoring rhetorical points than in getting at truth. There is a world of difference between the finite beings which were said to inhabit the physical cosmos by ancient temple religions and the transcendental, metaphysical God of modern book religion.

Really, only a near complete ignorance of what monotheism actually is, coupled with a hostility to learning, could lead one to think that asking about Poseidon has any bearing whatsoever on the debate between Christianity and materialists (except, I suppose, to explain the reasons why it isn’t relevant).

God, that is the God believed in by monotheists, simply isn’t an old man with a long beard flying around in space somewhere. If this seems tediously obvious to you, you may not realize that there is a large and growing body of evidence that many, many non-theists on the internet don’t realize this fact.

This is the reason why physical evidence is, at best, only marginally relevant. Christians have proposed a metaphysical concept outside the physical realm. One can consider that concept, debate it, believe or not believe it. But to respond by demanding that no one has ever seen God in a telescope is simply to misunderstand the most fundamental terms of the discussion.

And references to these other gods is no different than this, because they are exactly the sort of entity we should be able to spot with a telescope.

I am aware, of course, that there is a large and growing belief in materialism–of people who believe that there couldn’t possibly be anything that can’t be spotted with a telescope (or some other tool of science). Edward Feser has aptly titled this mentality “the last superstition”. It is as unsupported, both scientifically and philosophically, as Hades, Sep, or even Santa Claus.

Yet, somehow, this idea is proclaimed to be right on the grounds that, if we completely throw out all real understanding of what we are looking for, we haven’t found God. At the end of all the slogans and one-liners, it remains to be seen even the slightest reason why we should embrace the materialism that has so enchanted modern culture.

Divine Simplicity and Simpletons

simpleton-universityRichard Dawkins abandoned Christianity at the age of nine. And, by all accounts, he hasn’t learned anything new about what Christians believe since then.

This is to say that his “Boeing 747 Gambit” is an excellent case study in why one should read on a topic before making vast declarations on it in print.

What is the Boeing 747 Gambit? For those that don’t already know, it could be summarized as follows:

1. Because God has control over the universe, he would have to be an extremely complex being.

2. Complex beings always evolve from simpler beings.

3. The probability that something this complex could evolve is vanishingly small.

4. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

I first picked up “The God Delusion” looking for a real challenge to my faith, and was very disappointed to find, among other things, this being presented as the book’s central argument. Not only are these claims dubious at best, but I had to rewrite it just to make it coherent. Dawkins’ own summary was, demonstrably, logically invalid. If this was the best the New Atheists could present, it is no wonder theologians didn’t feel that books like this one were worth attention.

But theologians should pay attention, and not only because a post-graduate student could write a doctoral thesis on everything that is wrong with this argument. By stirring up controversy, Dawkins has given theologians the perfect excuse to discuss, say, divine simplicity.

That is the problem with Dawkins’ first statement here. God has traditionally understood as a simple being (not as in “easy to understand” but as in “not composed of parts”). As spirit, this is rather straight-forward. Dawkins misses this point, presumably because he believes that God has successive thoughts like we do (rather than holding all knowledge simultaneously), and otherwise thinks that a mind’s knowledge counts has adding to its physical complexity.

But this is nonsense. The only way to say that a mind’s thoughts make it more physically complex is to assume that there can’t be a mind without a brain. But this is, of course, the very thing Dawkins should be trying to prove. To assume it here would be to argue in a circle.

This is one of many reasons why experts don’t take the argument seriously. The real debate among theologians is whether God has metaphysical “parts” (as many Protestant theologians claim) or not (as Catholic and Orthodox theologians claim).

I think many would be interested in reading “Personalists” and “Classical Theists” defend their respective concepts of God. Why think God would be simple? How is the concept of the trinity explained if God is simple? How is God’s unity described without simplicity? This is a great way to deepen one’s own understanding of the divine.

But Dawkins simply isn’t interested. He “knows” this thing called “God” doesn’t exist, so he doesn’t have to bother learning what the word “God” actually means. But, if he had bothered, he would have noticed that his argument doesn’t disprove the God that monotheists believe in, but only the sort of God’s believed in by the ancient Pagans.

I’d say that Dawkins is a bit late to be proving that Zeus doesn’t exist (and there are far better arguments, even then). Really, his “central argument” has nothing to say about a God who is above nature, rather than part of it.

In the words of Stephen Barr, “Paley finds a watch and asks how such a thing could have come to be there by chance. Dawkins finds an immense automated factory that blindly constructs watches, and feels that he has completely answered Paley’s point.”

Why Think When You Already ‘Know’?

little-girl-wearing-big-round-glasses-14230209Quite a few of the objections I hear to theism are based in a particular understanding of theology. It amazes me how many of them come from people who insist ardently that we shouldn’t engage in theology. Alex Rosenberg is a good example; after arguing that all knowledge is scientific (and, consequently, that theology should be ignored as a source of knowledge), he writes this:

A version of theism worth believing must at a minimum attribute to God the intention to produce us and not just some intelligent creature or other (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 88)

I have no idea how, without undertaking some theology, Rosenberg can reasonably claim to know this. Is it really crucial the teaching of every religion, and even the concept of God, that God meant to produce humans specifically? Is it completely unbelievable that he’d be willing to create (or even did create) different species elsewhere in the universe? Whether one answers ‘yes’ or ‘no’, one has gotten into theology.

This is a common problem. In fact, it is not unlike the oft-heard complaints about the idea that God would have created the whole universe “just for us”. It wasn’t until I heard this complaint that I’d ever even considered the idea that humans are God’s only reason for creating the universe. I’d always assumed that there were many things about creation which God intended. Again, we’re discussing theology whether or not I’m correct.

It is also worth mention that, even if we accept Rosenberg’s position, this is no discredit to theism. He goes on to claim that God couldn’t have seriously intended create us because our coming into being was so improbable. Of course, one would think that doing the improbable would be within the capacity of an omniscient and omnipotent God.

But Rosenberg doesn’t stop to consider such an objection. Doing so would be to partake of the forbidden fruit of studying theology. Never mind that his own position is every bit as theological–the only difference is that it is terrible theology.

This is the reason why so many have argued that an understanding of theology is needed in order to refute God’s existence. It is the only way to know whether or not God, as he is actually defined, is even being addressed by one’s argument.

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.

Virtue Flows from Gratitude

good-samaritanFor years, something about Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan puzzled me:

Why is it about a Samaritan?

Like most modern people, I appreciate that Jesus casts a hated minority as the hero of the story. It is a wonderful statement about tolerance, equality, and care for the oppressed. Still, it seemed like an unexpected twist in that particular moment–making me wonder if I was missing a more fundamental reason for its being there.

More recently, something has been pointed out to me:

Though the things listed above probably are part of the reason Jesus chose a Samaritan as his hero, I think there is a more basic reason which has to do with the framing story. We often forget that the parable is told in response to a question from a theological scholar.

When he is told by Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself”, he begins to realize what kind of radical life this would require of him–one that not even the best of us, let alone most of us, can manage. Hoping to get out from under the guilt and judgment of this, he asks “who is my neighbor?”.

It would have made perfect sense for Jesus to then tell a story where a man just like him came across a wounded Samaritan and saved him. That would have answered the question, but failed to have taught him (or us) about grace. It would have been a simple “do it”, a command to be good–just like all commands.

Instead, Jesus has the man bleeding on the road, and his enemy (the Samaritan) up in the saddle. He’s essentially asking him “What if your only hope of survival was an act of kindness from someone who owes you nothing but contempt?”. In framing the issue this way, Jesus shows that he understands the dilemma we each face: no one can radically love others simply by being told that we should. First, we need to know that we’ve been radically loved ourselves.

In this way, he’s getting to the gospel. This, I think, is a call to be grateful for the God who, like the Samaritan, chose to love us when he owed us nothing but wrath. If we can begin to see Jesus Christ as our own personal Good Samaritan, that he radically loved us when we didn’t deserve it, we can begin to do the same for others.

Our God: the Nothing

nothingmain105942115David Bentley Hart, in his essay “Christ and Nothing”, offers an eloquent condemnation of the modern idolatry of the unconstrained will which chooses morals according to preference:

It seems to me much easier to convince a man that he is in thrall to demons and offer him manumission than to convince him that he is a slave to himself and prisoner to his own will. Here is a god more elusive, protean, and indomitable than either Apollo or Dionysus; and whether he manifests himself in some demonic titanism of the will, like the mass delirium of the Third Reich, or simply in the mesmeric banality of consumer culture, his throne has been set in the very hearts of those he enslaves. And it is this god, I think, against whom the First Commandment calls us now to struggle.

If you aren’t familiar with Hart, I encourage you to take a look at the full article. It takes a few sittings to get through, but is a brilliant commentary on modernism as a reaction to Christianity.

Battleground God

BattlegroundGodBattleground God is an online game that tests the logical consistency of one’s beliefs about God. It is designed to trap people, believers and unbelievers alike, in contradictions in order that we might sort out more consistent views.

As often as I disagree with its conclusions, I highly recommend the game. Trying to give logical reasons why the creators are wrong on certain points has been a great help in provoking thought and spotting areas where I need to clarify/clean up my thinking.

And, of course, conceding that I was wrong on a point has been a help to both my rationality and my emotional maturity.

If you do play the game, please feel free to post your score and/or disagreements with the creators below.

Russell XIX: Sticking Up for the Pharisees

PhariseeAfter misrepresenting the doctrine of Hell, Russell goes on to misrepresent Christ’s reasons for teaching on it:

Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence.

You will find that in the Gospels Christ said, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell.” That was said to people who did not like His preaching.

Russell seems confident that he knows exactly how to interpret Christ’s motivations. This dubious assumption seems to be at the heart of so much of New Atheist thinking. In fact, most theists agree that we’d consider Christianity to be false if the straw man presented by the New Atheists was much at all like actual teachings of Christ.

In attempting to criticize religion, Russell opposes Christ for criticizing the religion of his day. Russell is so confident that Christ uses the phrase “generation of vipers” simply out of anger at those who don’t accept his teaching that he fails to notice that Christ reserves this kind of talk for corrupt religious leaders. He is consistently gentle with those who aren’t smugly self-righteous.

Anyone who is deeply angry at corrupt religious practices, as Russell and the New Atheists claim to be, ought to love these words of Christ. He made it clear, in no uncertain terms, what he thinks of judgmental religious attitudes. And, yet, the bombastic, anti-religious writings of the New Atheists have complained that Christ should have been gentler toward the self-righteous religious bullies of his day.

Unintended though it is, I think it is fitting that Russell and the New Atheists end up attempting to defend the Pharisees from Christ, in that they act so much like Pharisees themselves. To me, they stand as an excellent reminder to constantly turn the finger of accusation inward. Failing to do so, on a long enough timeline, will allow self-righteousness to fester and, indeed, drive us away from the love and truth of Christ–Hell by another name.