Tag Archives: Theology

Debating with Caricatures

terry-bennett-006I’d like to start this post by agreeing with the New Atheists. So, please pay attention, this doesn’t happen very often:

I completely agree that the god they don’t believe in is a silly and monstrous concept, and that no one should believe it.

If there are any theists out there who actually believe in the kind of religion the New Atheists attack, I urge such people to abandon those beliefs for a less barbaric, anachronistic, and cartoonishly silly understanding of what Christian theologians have actually said.

And, of course, to the New Atheists themselves, I would urge them to learn something about what theologians have said and address that before making vast pronouncements about religion in general.

We hardly needed Richard Dawkins to figure out that the Westboro Baptist Church has some silly and unethical beliefs. If the New Atheists think they have something to say about the rest of theists, they are free to share, but simply assuming that our beliefs are the same as the Westboro Baptists is more akin to bigotry than rational analysis.

I’ve had it put to me that atheists don’t make claims about the particulars of belief–that they only respond to what theists claim. In response, I offer the bulk of the New Atheist literature. Christopher Hitchens demanding that religious people don’t doubt, Dawkins presenting an argument for atheism which assumes that God is a composite object, made out of physical parts and flying around in space somewhere, Harris insisting that Christians revere death itself (as opposed to respecting those who are willing to sacrifice their lives).

And so on it goes. I’ve been told a large number of things about what I believe by atheists who, by all accounts, haven’t a clue what I actually believe: what it means to speak of the non-natural as something altogether different from the physical, how explanations of the physical traits of systems are distinct from the question of whether or not those same things have traits of a different sort, and why there isn’t the slightest shred of scientific evidence in favor of the New Atheists’ conclusions along these lines.

And trying to correct this misinformation, to explain my actual beliefs, is met only with more demands that I prove the truth of precisely those views that I don’t believe in. That is, the fans of Dawkins loudly demand that I prove that there’s some physical, composite thing in space called ‘god’, or some other such inanity.

Whatever one calls this approach, it is not intellectual, open-minded, or interested in furthering knowledge. It is, to put it gently, mind-numbingly dense. On the one hand, it dismisses anything too difficult or abstract as not to be discussed–not refuted or dealt with, just the sort of thing that’s too hard to think about. On the other, it refuses to give up the adolescent demand that it has somehow found found the answer to all truth claims in a ridiculously simple formula.

Nearly all its attempts at argumentation take the form: “Rhetorically, religion sounds silly by the end of this sentence. Now, let’s quickly halt all thinking right there.”

Those who don’t take such an approach, who are actually trying to understand the claims of the world’s great religions, never fall into the anti-intellectual trap of thinking that repeating an internet meme settles a centuries-old debate.

I appreciate those sorts, whether they are atheist or theist, and urge everyone who engages on these issues to address what people actually believe. Whatever the emotional benefits of shredding straw-men, it accomplishes nothing of value.

If You Redefine Christianity, it’s Ridiculous

redefineIn my time discussing apologetics, I’ve encountered two types of atheists:

1. Those who don’t, at the end of the day, believe religious claims, but consider theism a respectable position worthy of serious consideration.

2. Those who know almost nothing about theism outside of wild distortions and straw men.

One such distortion, that comes up semi-regularly, is the patently false claim that Christianity holds that “God sacrificed himself to himself”. Usually, it is followed with intimations that God threatens people with Hell, as well as the insistence that this is the basis of Christianity.

With all due respect to those who believe such claims, this is borne of a deep ignorance of the facts.

Personally, I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with being ignorant, so long as one is willing to learn. Its entirely possible that the second sort of atheist could become the first sort simply by availing his or her self of the writings of actual theologians.

Those that do will find that, according to Christian theology, Christ was indeed a sacrifice, but not remotely “to himself”. That is, he was not a ritual sacrifice, but rather a sacrifice in the same sense that a soldier might sacrifice his life in battle.

Such a person would not be sacrificing “to” something, but rather “for” something (such as freedom or some other cause).

Christ, according to Christians, sacrificed himself to bridge the infinite gap between a perfect God and a finite, fallible species. This wasn’t remotely because God, personally, wanted a sacrifice, it was because (among other things) the distance was so great.

Bridging such a gap, and forgiving great wrongs, is always extraordinarily painful. It is always an act of sacrifice.

It is also well within mainline Christian teachings that Christ died not merely to suffer for us, but to suffer with us. That is part of bridging the gap in any relationship, after all. I’ve even read essays from black Christians who claim that they love Christ not so much because he died for them, but because he was, in effect, lynched. He knew what it was like to suffer under an unjust socio-political system.

Much, much more could be said, but it already seems obvious enough that the common internet meme is far too glib.

It is less so, however, than the even more common claim about threats of Hell. I can’t imagine that the idea that Christianity is a religion of forgiveness is an obscure fact. Yet I run across people who confidently claim that the threat of Hell is the motivation for good behavior to be found in Christianity.

But, as I’ve already written about the actual motivator, I’ll simply respond by wondering how someone who doesn’t seem even to know that Christianity offers forgiveness can claim to know anything at all substantial about the religion, let alone seen through it.

These kinds of claims are no part of what Christian theologians have claimed. Much less are they the basis of the religion. One can believe, or disbelieve. But, what one can’t do, if one is to be rational, is claim that these silly straw men have anything to do with Christianity.

Plug: The Experience of God

If you’ve not already heard the buzz about David Bentley Hart’s “The Experience of God”, be sure to have a look. It is a book worth reading: both for the thoughtful theist who wants to draw clear lines of distinction as to what she means by asserting that God exists, and for the thoughtful atheist who wishes to know exactly what it is that she’s rejecting.

Hart takes the New Atheists to task for their deep misunderstandings of what theists actually claim–and points out that their arguments all hang on making these errors.

I don’t, of course, agree with everything that Hart writes (I suspect it would worry him if I did), but he’s definitely right about this much: the current, often shrill, popular debates over theism are only very rarely ever talking about God at all.

God, as educated theists have always understood him, has simply been ignored–and thoughtful people will seek to rectify this in their own thinking.

The Hooked on Phonics Approach to Deities

fullContinuing on with the ways in which New Atheists misinterpret theism, we get to the argument from other religions. This is a popular meme within the group, and I think it touches on one of their most fundamental mistakes.

So, the topic for today:

If you think “God” and “god” mean the same thing, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

Simply because the words sound alike, are spelled (nearly) alike, and we could draw a few dubious parallels, does not make them the same. The idea that it does usually takes the form of “we’re both atheists with respect to every other god…” or “but, even if that showed that God exists, which god would it be?”.

Or, it simply comes in the form of someone repeatedly failing to capitalize the term “God” in writing. I suppose this is meant to squeeze in another insult to traditional theists, but it really only shows off one’s lack of understanding. And poor grammar doesn’t make for a good argument.

All this is to say that, asked by someone who’s genuinely interested in which particular religion might be true, the question of gods can be an important matter. As a reason to be an atheist, it’s completely worthless.

The only reason it isn’t instantly recognized as worthless is because there are many who simply don’t understand that gods are completely irrelevant to the arguments monotheists actually give for belief in God. Presumably, these same people understand that different proposed scientific theories, political philosophies, and ethical systems can be different–and that we can’t simply dismiss them all because most ideas will turn out to be false, but this same knowledge doesn’t seem to extend to deities.

Of course, I’m aware that it is often demanded that “there is as much evidence” for all gods. But, I’ve been over the “no evidence” argument. If there’s any point in bringing up ancient gods at all–that is, if it is supposed to be a legitimate point, and not just an emotional/rhetorical debate trick–it is to suggest that the reasons for rejecting God would be the same as the reasons to reject Thor or Apollo.

As such, it seems that anyone making this argument simply does not understand why the same reasons don’t apply.

The God of monotheism is transcendent–the ultimate explanation of all things. The gods of ancient temple religions were proposed physical entities, seen as immediate causes of physical events (and so overturned by science in a way that monotheism simply is not); God is an explanation as to why there are any physical events in the first place. The gods are (poor) explanations of the patterns in nature; God is an explanation as to why nature has patterns at all. The gods  (purportedly) exist within the universe, and depend on it for existence; but the universe exists in God, and depends on him for its existence. The gods are subject to moral judgement; God is the paradigm of the good.

And so on it goes. Anyone who can’t see why arguments for God don’t defend the gods, and that arguments against the gods don’t refute God, simply doesn’t understand the basic terms of the conversation.

Nor does it do to simply respond by claiming that these ancient deities aren’t actually scientific either–that they are invisible or otherwise beyond scientific test, as if this somehow defended the point that all deities are the same.

Many have given me exactly this response, and it is easy to answer. If one is simply going to change, step by step, what is meant by the word “Zeus” until it perfectly matches a monotheist view, then one has abandoned everything about Zeus that discredited the idea in the first place. One could, I suppose, alter the meaning of “Zeus” until it is exactly like gravitational theory, but this wouldn’t discredit gravity.

Likewise, this doesn’t discredit monotheism.

What it does instead is drill home how different monotheism actually is from the religions it displaced. The difference between magic and spirit is hard to overstate. Magic is failed science; spirit is another topic altogether.

Of course, I’ve encountered those who, hearing this, insist that I’m simply altering the definition of the monotheist God. And there are two very obvious answers to this:

First is the fact that it simply isn’t true; anyone making this retort is simply unaware of the history of theology.

Second is the fact that it doesn’t, in the end, matter. Even if this were some completely new understanding of God, all this response would be is an admission that I’ve hit upon an idea of God that, while remaining an explanation for everything I’ve said (here and elsewhere) that God explains, is immune to the objections of the New Atheists.

Of course, I can’t claim to be anywhere near that clever. I’m really just presenting the traditional view of God, and pointing out what geniuses of the past have said. But the point is that the “you’re changing definitions” retort is a tacit concession, not a rebuttal.

In the end, one can believe or disbelieve in transcendence. But, if one is going to be rational, one must avoid the sloppy, fallacious thinking that the existence of a monotheist God can be tested in the same way that Poseidon would be.

The Theology of Scientism

If there comes a point when one’s view of an idea is so distorted that one can’t be said to really be talking about it anymore, then Dawkins and his fans have long since reached that point with respect to religion.

But I’m increasingly convinced that it is helpful to go over the reasons why their understanding of Christianity is wrong. The subject is well-worth considering.

The topic for today:

If you’re using the phrase “the God hypothesis” you aren’t talking about Christianity.

God is not a hypothesis for the very simple reason that questions about God are not empirical questions.

This is the most consistent mistake of Richard Dawkins: the unquestioned assumption that the issue of theology is, somehow, a question for science to answer pervades his writings.

It is currently popular, in some circles, to say that all questions are scientific questions. The reasons why this is false have been pointed out many times in the past. Still, there are many in our culture who are so used to thinking of science as the paradigm of all inquiry that they seem to find it difficult to understand the thinking behind logic, metaphysics, or ethics.

But to speak of a “God hypothesis” is no more accurate than to speak of a “Modis Ponens hypothesis”, a “the universe is not an illusion hypothesis”, or a “people shouldn’t be selfish hypothesis”.

God, like many of the things that Dawkins himself takes for granted, is simply not subject to the experiment-observation method employed by science. Rather, God is a transcendent entity who is the ultimate explanation of the universe, not a finite, measurable entity within the universe.

And it is for this reason that God is not a scientific theory. A theory is a general description of a causal chain stretching backward in in time up to the present moment. God, by contrast, is (among other things) an explanation as to why such chains can exist in the first place–why the universe has regular patterns so that it can be studied by science at all.

Nor, to address the tired memetic response, does this make the concept of God untestable or unprovable. It only means that the necessary tests are not lab experiments.

So, whether or not one believes in such an entity, it is no more reasonable to demand scientific evidence for God than to demand scientific evidence that an argument isn’t fallacious. It is the wrong category.

If one starts one’s search with the assumption that everything is scientific, it is no wonder that one only finds the scientific. It would be completely obtuse to conclude that this, somehow, discredits the idea of a transcendent God.

And this is where the New Atheists are often accused of a certain intellectual tone-deafness. They seem to believe that, because they cannot imagine anything other than the scientific (or a test other than scientific tests), there must be no such thing.

Theology and Science Aren’t Rivals (In Other News: the Sky is Blue, Water Wet)

touchingthevoid4601Continuing on with Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we come to the thorny and emotional issue of arguments from design.

Mackie himself opens with Hume’s Dialogues, which contain several lines of argument (nicely summarized by Mackie). The first to be discussed is Hume’s idea that the entire universe cannot be said to be designed, because we cannot check that hypothesis with additional information (as we’ve included the whole of our information in it).

Because he tends to be very fair-minded, Mackie criticizes this argument in that it a scientific hypothesis or theory often goes beyond the available information–and is not useless for that (indeed, many have been put to amazing use). Still, he agrees with the basic formulation on the grounds that “the theistic hypothesis” does not explain why we observe the specific phenomena that we do.

Of course, the main thing to be said here is that it is simply wrong-headed to speak of “the theistic hypothesis” at all. Not only does this assume that there is only one form of theism (a falsehood that atheists are keen to reject in other contexts), but it is simply wrong to say that theism is a hypothesis in the first place.

Those beholden to materialism are constantly in danger of treating every topic as if it were science (save, it seems, when it is their personal views we happen to be discussing). No one dismisses a literary theory, a moral code, or a proposed law on the grounds that it is not a scientific hypothesis–that the results can’t be mathematically modeled or make predictions about the particular phenomena of stories, morals, or laws.

This is because these things are not science. More specifically, it is because they deal with free agents (writers, lawmakers, and so forth), and it is impossible to give a deterministic proof regarding the acts of such agents.

But this is what Mackie is demanding of theism. And it is to grossly misapply standards.

I’m coming to agree with those who maintain that there is a current tendency in philosophers to be consistently over-impressed by Hume. I enjoy his works, and he was clearly brilliant–but his arguments against theism were mostly directed at the easiest targets.

To insist that they had much, if anything, to say about all forms of theism is to deeply misunderstand what theism actually is.

It’s Always Been This Way

Infinity-Time1In arguing that the universe must have had a cause to come into existence, William Lane Craig has said that he finds the philosophical arguments for a beginning to the universe stronger than the scientific arguments.

Chris Hallquist, after an attempt to refute Craig’s review of the scientific evidence (without citing any actual science), turns to the philosophical arguments.

He correctly summarizes Craig’s argument thus:
1. An actually infinite number of things cannot exist

2. A beginningless series of events in time entails an actually infinite number of things.

3. Therefore, a beginningless series of events cannot exist.

If this is true, then one is forced to accept what the Bible has claimed for millennia: that the universe has an origin.

Hallquist’s strategy is to argue chiefly with premise (1). He claims that there is no contradiction to be found in examples like the famous Hilbert’s Hotel (where subtracting infinity from infinity can yield any number of a range of results).

I find this response much better than the previous section, probably because Hallquist has actually studied the subject. However, he still has not shown an actually existing infinite number to be a cogent idea.

In fact, I find this to be Hallquist’s best moment in his discussion of Craig. He shows a real understanding of Craig’s argument, and offers a reasonable answer. Even if I don’t find it convincing, and he ignores other points, it isn’t difficult to picture a sane person believing this.

Still, I do disagree.

Personally, I prefer the “Grim Reaper Paradox” to the examples Craig uses. In this example, a man has been passed by an infinite number of grim reapers, any of which will kill him if he’s still alive. But, if one asks the question “which reaper actually killed him?”, contradictory answers surface.

In an infinite string of them, there is no “first” grim reaper, so each of them should have passed a dead man, killed by some in front of it–but this would mean that none of them actually killed him.

But, if none of them killed him, he shouldn’t be dead–which is obviously wrong.

The oddness can be explored further, but the point is that this isn’t answered by Hallquist’s statements about Cantorian set theory. Nor are Craig’s examples that Hallquist failed to mentioned addressed by it. This would be understandable if he then moved on to these ideas, but he seems to think that dealing with one issue proves that all issues can be likewise addressed.

One could say any number of things to this, but the thing not to say is that this is a silly example–not applicable to the real world. Not only is it a logical test, but moments in time are very much like grim reapers in that they advance the heat death of the universe.

This paradox shows that there is no way that we could ever have reached this moment in time were the universe eternal.

So, while I appreciate that Hallquist has understood the arguments about infinities (rather than simply dismissing them as “fairyology”), and gives a much better response as a result of his studies, I do disagree.

As do the majority of people. Very few individuals, even atheists, are still trying to argue that the universe has existed eternally.  There is very little, if any, to take this view.

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.

Why are we Evil?

evil-insideFor the seventh and strongest of Smalley’s points in his “Top Ten Reasons Why I’m an Athiest”, he defers to Epicurus:

7. “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?” – Epicurus

And it’s easy to see why; this is a classic challenge to theism. (At least, it is a challenge to monotheism. Most forms of theism claim neither omnipotence nor goodness of their gods.)

But, formidable as it seems, it is based on no less a misunderstanding of Christianity than Smalley’s earlier points. To start, I find that most of those repeating this argument don’t actually know what omnipotence is.

That is, omnipotence is the ability to do anything that actually is a thing. Self-contradictions aren’t things that could ever be done, no matter how much power one has. Creating a married bachelor or a square circle aren’t tasks. They are simply meaningless arrangements of words.

This is significant because it is a self-contradiction to make someone freely do something. God creates people to be free creatures, meaning that we choose whether or not to do evil. No amount of power, not even omnipotence, can make someone freely be good.

And, when one thinks about it, this is also misunderstanding of evil. Goodness requires freedom. An act taken by a machine isn’t good or evil; only the actions of people free to choose have  a moral dimension to them. So, to rid the world of evil though forcing people to behave in certain ways is to simultaneously rid the world of good.

So, is a world with both good and evil in it (not to mention free will) superior to one with neither? I’d say so. And it definitely seems hard to prove that a good and omnipotent God would disagree.

There are many other answers that could be given to the problem of evil, but I’ll close with this:

If one agrees that evil does exist, and that it is something that a good God should stop (as opposed to simply being a matter of human opinion), how do we explain that? Really, if there is some absolute standard of morality, by which one presumes to indict God (who is neither human, nor a part of our culture), what is the basis of that morality? Answering that question, it has been shown, will lead one to postulate a good God.

Thus, it turns out that Smalley’s best reason to be an atheist is actually a reason to believe in God.